Oct. 4 marked a critical day when the UN Security Council failed to act on the worsening crisis in Syria. Russian and Chinese vetoes blocked a resolution that would have condemned the Assad regime’s actions and warned it of punitive measures if it did not reverse course.
Since then, the crisis has entered a new, more militarized phase with signs of a civil war developing. Action by the Security Council is urgently needed.
More than 5,000 people have been killed, including more than 300 children, since the first protests against the regime of Bashir al-Assad began nearly a year ago. Thousands more have been injured and detained.
Clashes between regime forces and the opposition Free Syrian Army have become more regular and made the situation inside the country more complex. The Arab League’s recent failure to persuade the Assad government to end violence and enact reforms has shown that there is no alternative to more concerted international action against Syria.
With the protection of protesters and other civilians a central concern of regional and international actors, all roads are again leading back to the UN Security Council. However, for the council to be effective it must, as in the case of Libya, show determination to enforce its recommendations, including taking measures to break down the regime’s support within Syria.
Recent developments have made decisive UN action more feasible. The Arab League’s unprecedented suspension and sanctions on Syria – itself a founding member of the organization – effectively lifted the Arab cover it had been providing Assad. The League’s actions have galvanized an Arab, regional (particularly Turkish), and Western coalition – similar to that assembled in the case of Libya – intent on pressuring and isolating the regime.
A recent UN report on Syria documents crimes against humanity that are being systematically committed by the regime on its own people. The report, by the UN Human Rights Council’s independent international commission of inquiry, describes patterns of summary executions, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, and gross violations of children’s rights. It’s a shocking indictment of the regime.
The report’s recommendations, including an urgent referral of the matter to the UN Security Council, place a duty on the council to respond decisively to such severe violations of human rights.
Serious international economic and political sanctions have the potential to alter conditions in Syria.
The array of bilateral and regional sanctions imposed by the US, Europe, and the Arab League have already had some practical impact on a worsening Syrian economy. The Syrian currency has devalued by more than 25 percent against the US dollar and has dropped below the psychologically significant rate of 60 Syrian pounds to one dollar. That means the currency may well plunge as nervous Syrians rush to buy scarce foreign currencies.
Asset freezes and travel bans imposed on the Assad family and other senior regime figures, as well as the Arab League’s ban on commercial flights to Syria, are also having a demonstrative political effect within the country. Credible reports describe business leaders who have staunchly supported the regime now leaving the country.
Senior members of the regime are also thought to be seriously worried. Persistent rumors point to cracks appearing in the higher political and military echelons of the regime. Disagreements may be emerging, particularly among the minority-Alawite officer security corps, on the best way to quell the uprisings or even on how to face the perceived existential threat to the Alawite community – to which the Assad family belongs.
However, the rate of abandonment or disaffection inside the regime and among its supporters remains relatively small. Iraq’s and Lebanon’s open dissent from the Arab League’s sanctions and Jordan’s reluctance to enforce them on fears that they will hurt their own economy will diminish their practical impact. More concerted international sanctions, however, will sharpen their bite and demonstrate that time is running out for the regime.
To be effective, the Security Council needs to craft a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows the UN to take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.” The resolution must have three primary goals: demanding an immediate cease-fire and ensuring the protection of civilians; opening up Syria to allow witness of what is happening in the country; and placing insurmountable pressure on those supporting the regime.
The resolution should incorporate the measures adopted by the Arab League and the recommendations of the UN’s independent international commission of inquiry. It should refer President Assad, key members of his family, and senior security officials to the International Criminal Court for directing or committing the alleged gross violations of human rights abuses detailed in the UN report.
Finally, the fact that Assad’s security forces have been firing on and killing fleeing civilians heading toward Syria’s borders strengthens the demand that Syrian authorities establish and guarantee “humanitarian zones” – safe areas and corridors leading to the borders of the country. The council should warn it will take further measures if zones are not properly set up within 15 days.
Passing such a resolution will no doubt be challenging, particularly in the face of continued Russian and Chinese objections. Unlike with Libya, the Russians and Chinese have not fallen in line with the Arab League on Syria.
Key Arab states, as well as the United States and Europe, urgently need to intensify dialogue with both countries. The discussion must focus on the core strategic and economic interests of Moscow and Beijing in Syria, as well as the lessons learned from the international community’s engagement in Libya.
Arab states in particular need to explore how these interests can be met while also warning of the rising dangers to the greater Middle East of continued Russian and Chinese intransigence at the UN. With some 90 percent of Arabs polled supporting the protesters in Syria, further delay – which could lead to thousands more deaths – will not be excused by many in a changing region.
Salman Shaikh is director of the Brookings Doha Center. He has served as special assistant to the UN Special Coordinator of the Middle East Peace Process and as adviser on the Middle East and Asia to the Undersecretary General for Political Affairs.