"Do not let the Syrian people down; the violence must end," implored Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi at the Security Council yesterday. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton posed the challenge even more bluntly: "We all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there." As the death toll rapidly mounts, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe denounced the "shameful silence of the Security Council." Most of the people around me in the press gallery at the Security Council seemed to feel the weight of what felt like an historic, urgent public debate.
But as fierce as the urgency for action in the face of the rapidly escalating body count was the crystal clear rejection of any authorization for military intervention. Qatari Foreign Minister Hamed bin Jassem began the debate by assuring that the League was not calling for a military intervention, and returned to the floor at the end of the session to again stress the point. "We aim to avoid any foreign intervention, specifically any foreign military intervention," declared the Arab League's Nabel al-Arabi. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed fears about another Libya-style intervention as "a false analogy," and in a press opportunity outside the Council told reporters that "we want to underscore that there is no intention to seek any authority or to pursue any kind of military intervention." Even Juppe, the most passionate voice for the resolution, insisted that "absolutely nothing in the draft could lead to such intervention." The Security Council will not be authorizing military action in Syria any time soon.
Ruling out a military option is clearly the only way to even hope to pass a Security Council resolution. Russian warnings against military intervention were echoed by the representatives of India, Pakistan, China and others. Despite press accounts of a stalemated Security Council, the effort to assuage such concerns and achieve consensus on a resolution calling for a peaceful transition could work. Russia's objections focused on a military option which the bill's sponsors had already specifically taken off the table. The German representative told reporters afterwards that he had found the Russian statement "conciliatory," and Juppe maintained that he saw a "window of hope" for agreement.
Many disgusted observers have dismissed the Council's efforts as a charade since it does not contain authorization for military action, or because they believe that the Arab transition plan has no chance of being adopted. I disagree on the former, since there still remains no compelling case for military action despite the mounting calls for such an intervention among those desperate to find some way to stop the killing. Ruling out military action is right both on the politics at the UN and on the policy. I agree that it is unlikely that Bashar al-Asad or his opponents will live up to the terms of the transition plan, even if the UN resolution endorses it. Even if they did, there are problematic aspects to the plan, which could leave Asad with a political role and leave the instruments of regime repression intact. Indeed, Clinton went out of her way at the UN to distinguish between the regime and the state, hinting at only a limited and controlled process of political reform once the killing has stopped.
But meeting the letter of the plan isn't necessary for a resolution to have a real, and potentially highly positive, impact on the Syrian crisis. Most obviously, a resolution would signal to Asad and to all Syrians that Russia would no longer be able or willing to protect it from international isolation. It could send a decisive signal to fence-sitters that the regime can not survive, leading to a sudden wave of defections. It might also wake up Asad and those around him to the reality of the regime's situation, and compel them to begin to deal more seriously with his political opposition.
The most urgent part of the plan, of course, would be the requirement of a verifiable end to violence and the pullback of Syrian regime forces. Few expect that the regime would be able or willing to do so, particularly at a time when it faces an escalating tempo of attacks and protests from the Syrian opposition. If the violence and security presence do not end within 15 days as required, the Syrian opposition surely would not be willing or able to sit down for the political talks. The record thus far, with regime violence escalating during the monitoring mission despite its commitments, suggests that it will not. Hamed Bin Jassem's frustration was palpable at the Council: "Our efforts and initiatives have been in vain for the Syrian Government has not made any sincere effort to cooperate with our efforts, and, unfortunately, its only solution has been to kill its own people." Would it be any different for the UN?
So much depends on expectations about what is happening on the ground. Western officials constantly say that Asad's days are numbered. Many well-informed observers, including those who have spent time recently inside Syria, seem to agree. The economy is deeply struggling under sanctions and the effects of internal conflict, peaceful protests and armed attacks are escalating across the country, and Syria is increasingly isolated internationally. But while it is arguably helpful for them to say so, to encourage regime defectors or fence-sitters, the source of their confidence is not clear. The Syrian opposition claims to have the military momentum, with their stories of liberated cities and closing in on Damascus, but the fog of war is heavy, propaganda abounds, and the truth remains murky. Asad may be losing political support, but it isn't clear that he needs it to survive as long as his military machine remains loyal - and thus far there have been few high level defections such as those we saw in Libya early in the conflict.
The Arab-Western strategy at the UN makes a great deal of sense if Asad's days are truly numbered, and the decisive pressure to remove him will come from the inside. An international consensus crystallized in a Security Council resolution would limit the regime's options and send a clear signal to Syrians that their future does not lie with the status quo. It could pave the way to more concrete assistance to the Syrian opposition and to more multilateral sanctions targeting its regime. The political transition plan may not unfold as outlined on paper, but the constant references to toleration and inclusion can reassure frightened elites and minorities that they have a place in post-Asad Syria. It would raise the costs of the regime's killing, as the 15 day reporting requirement creates a series of forcing moments of international attention.
If the killing continues and the political plan stalls, as seems depressingly likely, the measures potentially contemplated by the UN such as sanctions, condemnation, or ICC referrals will be seen as inadequate. Pressure will build for something more, just as the failure of bombing to resolve the situation would inevitably lead to demands for more direct military intervention -- outside the Security Council's mandate, if need be. This is the veiled threat which Asad will perceive, no matter how many times Western and Arab leaders rule out the use of force. Short of war, it is easy to imagine the provision of advanced weapons to the opposition or even the insertion of trainers as a next step short of military intervention... for all the problems which this could pose to a post-Asad Syria.
In short, there is still hope for the Security Council to have a significant positive effect by passing the resolution supporting the Arab initiative while rejecting military intervention. Getting a Security Council resolution with 12-13 votes and a Russian abstention could make a very positive difference. The advocates for the resolution are right. It is outrageous, even reprehensible, for the United Nations to stand by in the face of documented atrocities, particularly when the Arab League is asking for its help and the Libya intervention revolved around a norm against regimes using deadly force against peaceful protestors. This is not about imperialism or international conspiracies or any of the other claptrap flung around the ether. It's about a regime which refuses to stop killing its own citizens.
Action is necessary to demonstrate the U.N.'s relevance in responding to such atrocities. Doing so without resort to military force could help to disarm the (in my view, largely tendentious) complaints in the Council about the Libya precedent. At this point, the game plan should be to intensify Syria's international isolation, hold out the threat of ICC indictments, continue with targeted sanctions, help the opposition to coalesce and commit to a democratic future, and play a support role in preparing for a managed transition- all while avoiding a risky, unnecessary, and ill-advised military intervention. These steps will not immediately or decisively end Asad's killing or resolve the crisis. But neither will a military intervention. The intervention in Libya under far more favorable conditions took half a year to play out. Bombing Syria would only be the beginning of a new, difficult phase of the conflict rather than a quick, decisive alternative to the political strategies now being pursued.
I remain more hopeful than others about agreement being achieved. I heard a great deal of support for such a resolution supporting the Arab plan while ruling out military action in the Council yesterday. There are signs that Russia will ultimately decide to not veto such a resolution if it is completely isolated in its position. Such a resolution won't solve the Syrian crisis overnight, but it could be a pivotal step towards making a solution possible. Let's hope.