Syria next steps: With diplomacy stalled, escalation expected

Vetoes by Russia and China at the United Nations Security Council leaves few diplomatic options available to stem the violence in Syria. 

Allison Joyce/Reuters
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari is seen during a UN Security Council meeting in New York Saturday. Russia and China joined forces in a double veto on Saturday to knock down a Western-Arab UN Security Council resolution backing an Arab League plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria appear to have reached an impasse following the vetoing by Russia and China of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

The vote at the UN Security Council on Saturday came amid the worst surge of violence in Syria since the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in mid-March last year, with over 300 people reported dead since Friday in the flashpoint city of Homs.

With diplomacy running out of steam, analysts expect the violence in Syria to intensify as an emboldened Mr. Assad redoubles efforts to stamp out the revolt while the opposition steps up acts of civil disobedience and rebel forces continue the shift to armed resistance.

“The situation in Syria is going to escalate with greater bloodshed in the streets as a consequences of the vetoes which ended up giving the regime greater support,” says Imad Salamey, associate professor of politics at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

He added that there would be an increase of diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to reverse its backing for Syria which would likely require even greater concessions from the US, Europe, and the Arab world.

Watered-down resolution

The draft of the UN Security Council resolution was a watered-down version of the original text presented by Morocco which was based on an Arab League initiative. The Arab League had called for Assad to transfer power to his deputy and for a national unity government to be formed within two months. But the final draft presented for vote on Saturday limited its demands to calling for a cessation of violence and launching a dialogue between the regime and the opposition. Russia has repeatedly warned against UN moves that could set the stage for a military intervention similar to the NATO campaign to support rebels attempting to overthrow former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

A US official involved in Syria policy described the veto as “catastrophic” and suggested that the Syrian opposition and the Arab League should coordinate together to take the diplomatic lead.

“We can’t let Moscow and Beijing have the final word on this,” the official says.

Still, it is unclear what further diplomatic opportunities exist. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, is scheduled to visit Damascus Tuesday where, he said, he will press for “rapid democratic reforms." Assad has promised a raft of political reforms, but implementation has been slow and overshadowed by the worsening violence. Syria blames the uprising on “foreign conspiracies” and says the violence is being perpetrated by “armed terrorist gangs.”

Arab League monitoring

An Arab League mission to monitor Syrian compliance with a joint agreement reached in November collapsed last month after several Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, withdrew their observers. The mission had been criticized for failing to prevent further violence, but diplomats say that it did succeed in casting an international spotlight on trouble spots that previously had been inaccessible. It also helped reduce the level of violence as the regular Syrian forces were compelled to withdraw troops and armored vehicles, albeit temporarily, from towns and cities. It is unclear whether the Arab League has the will to revive the observer mission or even if Damascus would permit the monitors to return.

“The only thing [the international community] can do now is continue to tighten the sanctions already in place which are biting the Syrian economy, and probably the Arabs and others might be arming the opposition more and more, so playing a long game,” says Paul Salem, director the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “This is not going to be resolved by a [single] decision so it’s going to get bloodier.”

The West has balked at playing a more direct military role in Syria, such as establishing and policing safe havens or no-fly zones where refugees and rebel fighters with the Free Syrian Army can congregate. But a diplomatic impasse could encourage logistical support, possibly covert initially, for the FSA or at the very least a more focused assessment of the rebel army’s capabilities.

US Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut said on Sunday that the Syrian rebels should receive a “range of support” from medical supplies to intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities.

“And then ultimately it is providing them with weapons,” he said during a panel discussion on the Middle East in Munich, Germany.

Rebel ranks swelling

The ranks of the FSA have swelled in recent weeks with deserters from the regular Syrian army and it is claiming responsibility for a growing number of attacks against the Assad regime’s security forces. But the FSA is relatively lightly-armed, with weapons and ammunition in short supply. The FSA’s leadership is in Turkey, but it is unclear what level of control it exerts over military units scattered across the country.

“The FSA should be supported by the international community,” says Jeffrey White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This support should be both political and military. The FSA should be recognized as the legitimate armed opposition to the regime.”

Professor Salamey said that the military option of supporting the FSA could be attractive to Turkey which is concerned over stability in areas of Syria adjacent to its border.

“Nevertheless, I believe most domestic forces and players realize that a military confrontation will not help the opposition and may lead to a prolongation of the conflict and give the regime the upper hand,” he says.

The Syrian army remains much stronger than the FSA, despite the wave of desertions from its ranks. The FSA is lightly armed and comparatively small compared to the military which has artillery, armored vehicles, and air power at its disposal giving it an edge in any direct confrontation.

Last week, Syria leaned on Lebanon to tighten its control of their shared border to block the flow of smuggled weapons into Syria and halt the passage of FSA militants and refugees. In response, Lebanese troops have deployed more heavily in the northern Wadi Khaled district which lies only 20 miles from Homs and where Lebanese support for the Syrian opposition runs high.

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