Friday, June 10, 2011

UN discord will be measured in Syrian dead

The lead role played by France and the United Kingdom in presenting a draft resolution to the UN Security Council condemning the brutality of the Syrian regime is laudable. This comes not long after the two countries led the pack in preventing Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s forces from overrunning Benghazi. Such advocacy has been in refreshing contrast to the Obama administration’s lethargy.

It is a coincidence, but a revealing one, that the Europeans are again showing nerve soon after the arrest of the Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic. Bosnia was a watershed for Europe, a test the continent ignominiously failed. It was the military intervention of the United States that tilted the balance against the Serbs, leading to the signing of the Dayton Accords. For a time afterward the Europeans went through a crisis of confidence, but what makes French and British foreign policy activism today so intriguing (and that may explain why such activism is on display) is that it comes as the European unification project is moving through considerable turbulence.

In Washington, meanwhile, a glum Barack Obama is watching the polls. Americans are expressing displeasure with the president’s economic performance, while the brief bounce he earned from Osama bin Laden’s assassination has evaporated. With money on everyone’s mind, and so little to go around in the United States, Obama may be contemplating a rapid drawdown in Afghanistan. Even as the French and British are in an expansive mood, the Americans appear to be in shopkeeper mode: counting their dollars and cents and complementing their dearth of funds with a dearth of ambition.

That has been most unfortunate for the Syrian people. Washington was compelled to follow the European lead in Libya, but it has been more or less standoffish in Syria. In a May 19 speech at the State Department, Obama declared that President Bashar al-Assad had a choice of leading a transition to democracy in Syria or leaving. But he has yet to ask Assad to step down, even though, since then, the Syrian regime has pursued its violent campaign of repression, showing no inclination to embrace democracy. According to anti-regime activists, roughly 1,300 people have been killed. The real figure is probably much higher, since thousands have gone missing and are presumed dead. Some 10,000 Syrians are said to have been arrested.

The Europeans, notably British Foreign Secretary William Hague, have echoed Obama’s phrasing. However, American and European diffidence has become increasingly embarrassing in light of the Syrian carnage. That’s why France and the United Kingdom have again pressed for a Security Council resolution. A few weeks ago the Russian and Chinese refused to endorse one. This time around, however, the French and British appear willing to confront the two naysayers, even if it means the resolution will be vetoed.

The Obama administration has backed Paris and London. However, the intentional weakness of the draft resolution, even if it exhibits a desire to co-opt Russia and China, also may take into consideration continued American reluctance to advance too quickly on Syria. The text condemns the behavior of the Syrian regime, demands that it put an end to the crackdown, and warns that the “attacks currently taking place in Syria by the authorities against its people may amount to crimes against humanity.” It also calls for a lifting of the siege of Daraa and Jisr al-Shoughour by the army and the security forces.

However, the resolution fails to impose sanctions, and repeats the absurd logic of Barack Obama in presuming that the Assad regime might yet lead a democratic makeover. The draft reads that the “only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process,” one taking into consideration “the stated intention of the Government of Syria to take steps for reform.”

No one, certainly not British and French diplomats at the United Nations, are under any illusion that this will happen. The problem is that, given the Libya precedent, no one wants to make a push in Syria that might ensnare the international community in a new conflict it cannot manage. That’s understandable. But this approach ignores that the Arab states and the international community don’t have the luxury of wasting more time over Syria, where the breakdown may soon affect the Middle East in especially dangerous ways.

The new resolution is designed to be a wedge, one that commits the Security Council to future action. If the document is passed and the Syrian regime refuses to implement its clauses, as we can expect, there will have to be a follow-up resolution imposing penalties on Damascus. The problem is that this will buy the Assad regime weeks of international vacillation, during which it will kill more Syrians.

The Assad regime has been its own worst enemy. It is plausible that it will escalate the butchery at home in the coming days and weeks, virtually begging the Security Council to accelerate, and escalate, its response to developments in Syria. Already, Turkey is facing thousands of Syrian refugees crossing the border. The draft resolution states that the Syrian crisis represents a threat to international peace and security. If the Russians and Chinese admit to this by voting in favor, it would be a major concession. Until now they have insisted that international peace and security are not in jeopardy.

Most disappointing has been Barack Obama. In his State Department address, the president vowed that the United States would henceforth bolster democracy in the Middle East. But Obama is worried about his re-election. He doesn’t want to take on overseas tasks that detract from the economy. When he does come around on Syria, as he had to on Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the president will once again appear tardy and unconvinced, therefore unconvincing.

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