Diplomacies of war
Despite a United Nations vote in favour of the Arab League's peace plan for Syria, the world powers still cannot agree a way forward, writes Graham Usher
On 16 February the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning violence in Syria and supporting an Arab League peace plan which, among other things, calls on President Bashar Al-Assad to cede power to a deputy. Voting in favour were 137 countries, 12 against and 17 abstained.
"Today the UN General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria: the world is with you. Bashar Al-Assad has never been more isolated," said Susan Rice, United States ambassador to the UN.
The overwhelming margin of the vote made partial amends for the Russian and Chinese veto of a near identical Arab League resolution at the Security Council on 4 February. But it was only partial.
With 193 countries represented -- and no threat of vetoes -- the General Assembly expresses global opinion, but its resolutions carry no legal force. Any "pressure" exerted on the Syrian regime is moral. Nor is Damascus quite as isolated as the vote implied.
Russia proposed amendments calling on Syria's opposition to "dissociate" itself from armed groups, and on these groups to end their attacks "just as government forces must stop shelling towns and withdraw from population areas," said Russian representative Vitaly Churkin.
The Arab League rejected the changes for equating regime and opposition violence. Churkin said the Arab refusal reflected a "worrying trend to isolate the Syrian leadership, reject any contact with it and impose an external formula for a political settlement".
Other countries agreed. Serbia, India and Bangladesh all voted in favour of the resolution but backed the Russian changes. "Their content cannot be avoided, and sooner or later will need to be addressed," said Serbia.
Nor were the Arabs quite as united as they looked. Introduced by Egypt -- and backed by Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan -- the resolution was nonetheless driven by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia: two monarchies least affected by the Arab spring and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, most opposed to its democratic ambition. Saudi's goal is less freedom than breaking up the Iran-Syria alliance, replacing the Al-Assad regime with a Sunni-led, pro-GCC government, says an Arab analyst.
Lebanon and Algeria abstained on the vote. And Iraq listened uneasily while Syria's representative Bashar Jaafari berated the resolution as a "plot" to overthrow his government, and the Arab League as an organisation "kidnapped" by the GCC in a "new alliance with Israel".
Moreover, the General Assembly resolution is unlikely to untie the diplomatic knot. On the same day as the vote French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe met in Vienna with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, urging his support for a new Security Council resolution authorising a "humanitarian corridor" in Syria. Lavrov said any such move would need the consent of the Syrian government.
Juppe vented: "We disagreed on our analysis of the situation. For me things are clear: it's a tyrannical regime that is repressing a popular movement." For Russia, it's also clear: it's a legitimate Syrian government trying to quell an armed and foreign-backed insurgency.
The disagreement explains the two sides' differences over the way ahead. Russia and China support Al-Assad's call for a constitutional referendum on 26 February, followed by new elections in 90 days. These would end the Baath party's role as "the leader of the state and society" in Syria, replacing it with a multi-party system.
A year ago such reforms may have stemmed the uprising. Today they are passł©. The Syrian army is currently crushing rebel bases in Homs, Hama, Deraa, the Damascus suburbs and other centres, leaving 600 Syrians dead in less than a month, including nearly 400 in Homs, says Amnesty International.
The idea a referendum -- let alone elections -- could be held in such turmoil is "laughable", said the White House. The opposition Syrian National Council has called for a boycott.
Yet the Arab League's own peace plan also lacks traction. Blocked at the Security Council, it now centres on a Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis on 24 February. Hosted by the Tunisian government -- and attended by the Arab League, US, France, Britain and Turkey -- the aim is to "intensify pressure on the [Syrian] regime and mobilise the humanitarian relief that is needed," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 17 February.
Tunisia would also like to upgrade the SNC as Syria's "official government", a quest that currently chimes weakly with the Arab and other "friends".
All three goals are hard to meet. Despite an Arab League call, not all the Arabs are imposing sanctions on Damascus: Lebanon is exempt and rumours are rife that not only Hizbullah but also Iraq is funnelling cash to its neighbour. Then there is Iran.
Western states and Turkey have made it clear there can be no military intervention to secure humanitarian corridors or safe havens in Syria without a resolution by the Security Council. Nor have Western governments been keen on the Arab League's proposal for a joint peacekeeping force with the UN: the West is unwilling to provide soldiers; the Arabs are unable to.
And while the SNC may be the favoured opposition of Arab states like Tunisia and Libya, in Syria it is seen as unrepresentative, fractious and disorganised. It has a minimal base among Syrians inside the country and almost no control over the so-called Free Syrian Army, a coalition of local and independent fighters that are an army in name only.
Given the incremental collapse of their state, many Syrians would probably back Russia's call for a ceasefire. But the SNC is opposed to any truce without first the ouster of Al-Assad, as is the Arab League and, in all likelihood, the US, Britain and France. Nor is there much chance of Al-Assad standing down, since this would mean not only the end of his presidency but the entire authoritarian system it personifies.
So the war continues in Syria, as do the diplomacies of war in New York and Tunis.