Why Europe is pushing for sanctions on Syria – not intervention

Alistair Burt, a top British parliamentarian whose portfolio includes the Middle East and N. Africa, explains how Britain's response to the Arab Spring has been 'heavily influenced' by the Iraq war.

Seth Wenig/AP
The Security Council meets during the 66th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Monday.

European powers are looking to boost the pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime but are struggling to overcome Russian resistance at the United Nations Security Council, where a new draft resolution is under review today.

After more than six months of persistent streets protests, and a violent government response that has left an estimated 2,700 Syrians dead, diplomats say there is little prospect of military intervention similar to that approved in Libya earlier this year – even if the situation on the ground is fairly similar.

“Is what’s happening on the streets of Syria equivalent to what happened in Libya? Pretty well, yes,” said Alistair Burt, the British Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. “Are we more powerless to do anything about it? Yes, we don’t have the leverage.”

Why military intervention isn't seen as an option in Syria

The differences between Libya and Syria are manifest, including the fact that there is little appetite for military intervention to propel the toppling of Mr. Assad, said Mr. Burt, speaking this week at Harvard’s Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass.

The Arab League stood against Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s rule, when the former Libyan strongman vowed to hunt opponents “street by street, house by house,” which helped galvanize the UN Security Council to act last March without a veto from Russia or China.

Still, none of the Arab Spring revolutions are the same, which have succeeded so far in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and are under way in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.

“In Syria, the Arab community has been much more conflicted, they have much closer relationships with the Assad regime, they have not been prepared to take the same actions, and Russia has made it very clear it will veto any action,” said Burt, a long-time parliamentarian whose current portfolio includes the Middle East and North Africa.

Russia has complained that NATO's campaign in Libya, which proved decisive in ousting Mr. Qaddafi from power, overstepped the mandate of UN Resolution 1973 that called for using “all means” to protect civilians. Yesterday's push for a resolution at the Security Council included scaled-back demands from Britain and other European countries, but Moscow appeared to remain wary.

Burt said that Russia's opposition, together with the lack of a strong unified Arab demand for Assad to go, makes military intervention in Syria unlikely. But, he said in an interview before yesterday's meeting, “there are more things that can and are being done. The sanctions process is a good one, and of course a range of opportunities arise.”

“Presently something like 58 individuals and 12 entities have been covered by EU sanctions, in terms of travel bans and asset freezes,” he said. “The oil sanctions are new; the dynamics of that are pretty important – 25 percent of Syria’s revenues come from oil; 90 percent of their oil is exported to the European Union. That’s a pretty big change that will come about, so that’s a pretty hefty sanction.”

European powers including Britain had proposed a revised draft resolution that would threaten Syria with targeted sanctions but dropped a previous demand for an arms embargo and immediate sanctions. European representatives were to circulate a new draft last night, with "consultations at the expert level" this afternoon, according to the UN-focused news agency Inner City Press.

UK's Arab Spring approach 'heavily influenced' by Iraq war

Burt expressed strong optimism about the Arab Spring, particularly in Libya – arguing that the determination shown so far bodes well for the success of the transition.

When asked how the UK expected to be “credible” in region after the Iraq invasion of 2003 and its violent aftermath, Burt drew a direct line between the violent aftermath of the US- and British-led occupation of Iraq – which included an insurgency, civil war, and the death of nearly 4,800 American soldiers – and more recent moves in Libya.

“What happened in Libya, I would submit to you, has been heavily influenced by our experience in Iraq,” said Burt, noting that the UK made “every effort” to get “legal backing that was accepted by everybody, not half accepted by some and just about enough to get us through a difficult patch by others.”

From the outset, Western powers ruled out deploying boots on the ground, but approved NATO airstrikes that were crucial in assisting Libya’s rag-tag anti-Qaddafi militias. “Anything that involved work on the ground had to involve Libyans; [with] no covert groups operating,” said Burt. “So even though it probably took longer, we stuck to that.”

“All that, I would submit to you, has been bought with the price paid by the people of Iraq, for what happened there,” Burt told the Harvard audience. “So lessons have been learned. Maybe that’s the way people recover their credibility – you just show that you can do things a bit differently, and perhaps a bit better, in order to protect people.”

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