7 February 2012
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


The failure of UN diplomacy and the upsurge in violence in the Syrian city of Homs show just how different the dynamics of current international efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis are from the Libyan context of early 2011.

China and Russia linked the two by citing the drift towards regime change in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan as the main reason why both states vetoed the February 4th UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution. In many ways, however, the comparisons stop there.

In spite of modifications taking into account some Chinese and Russian concerns, the draft UNSC resolution supported Arab League calls for President Assad of Syria to step aside, but stopped short of authorising UN member states to adopt measures to protect civilian lives as in UNSC Resolution 1973 of March 2011 on Libya. In reality, the reluctance of any international actor to consider direct (or indirect) military action in Syria is compounded by a deeper set of international divisions than the fate of Gaddafi's Libya provoked.

The absence of a shared analysis of the core problem, as well as potential solutions, reflects the current impasse. On one side are those (China and Russia, with Iran close behind) in favour of negotiations between sides seen as equally responsible for the violence and loss of life; on the other side are those (led by the US, EU and Arab League with Turkey) who attribute the lion’s share of the blame and responsibility to the Assad presidency and regime.

At stake is a much larger battle for influence over the future of the Middle East than can be gauged by responses to Syria's immediate or long-term future alone. Libya never enjoyed this degree of intrusive external interest, except in respect of its role as a regional energy supplier. In the Syrian case, actors within and beyond the region are weighing up options that may have little to do with Syria itself, or in which Syria features as a component part of larger designs.

One such design, as an underlying current, is the rivalry between the Sunni Arabs of the Gulf (led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and Iran to suppress or supplant each other's lines of influence in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Syria. The latter three states are geographically linked to each other, and are critical to supply lines reaching rebels and the Syrian government alike. Without a viable solution, Syria is increasingly at risk of being used as a proxy battleground for wider strategic interests, as was Lebanon from the mid-1970s. The spectre of a protracted civil war, or quasi-civil war, in Syria is now gaining strength, unless other approaches can be devised.

With the UNSC route in abeyance for now, the main protagonists behind drafting the failed resolution (the US, EU and Arab League) are examining the possibility of setting up a Libyan-style 'contact group' to monitor developments and explore further options. One of these, not recently mentioned, was a French-sponsored idea to create 'humanitarian corridors' to allow food and medical supplies in, and the injured and critically ill out of Syria. Associated with this has been the suggestion that Turkey would be best placed to provide and police a buffer zone on its southern border with Syria.

Despite supporting the UNSC resolution, and providing succour to the opposition-led Syrian National Council (SNC) against the Assad regime, Turkey has no interest in being seen to provide cover for a US-EU-Arab League initiative, nor to be perceived to be doing their collective bidding. Invoking (or even eventually involving) NATO in this context would not resolve this in the way it latterly did for Turkey during last year’s international response to Libya.

Finally, missing from the core of the past weekend’s drama were Syria’s immediate neighbours other than Turkey, namely, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Each has their own reasons for supporting, opposing or mitigating the consequences of any binding resolutions to emerge from the UN, and not all the Arab states are fully behind the Arab League position. Both Iraq and Lebanon are ruled by governments close to Iran, but just as eager to retain their own independence of action should they be forced to choose between opposing Middle Eastern alliances. In the case of Jordan, at least 40% of its trade passes through Syria, placing it in a particularly delicate position.

While the next stages are worked out, in the short-term, China and Russia are bearing the brunt of international criticism, including that of being responsible for any future bloodshed in Syria. Yet, short of more robust and military-backed measures to protect Syrian civilians, it is not clear how the UNSC resolution, had it been adopted, would have equipped the international community to do more than isolate President Assad further.

As in Iran, sanctions may have some impact on the ability of the Assad regime to continue resisting external pressure. Equally, as in the case of Iran, sanctions may have little impact on the political and military options the Syrian government chooses to exercise on its own people. The EU's recently agreed sanctions against Syrian oil exports will not take full effect until the summer, giving the Syrian government time to find markets elsewhere.

In the meantime, the levels of armed resistance in Syria could well increase and muddy the waters of responsibility if significant numbers of civilians are caught in the crossfire. The world is watching Syria ever more closely now, just as regime change is only one of the potential outcomes in the balance.