On Syria, Go Back to the United Nations

Salman Shaikh
Salman Shaikh Former Brookings Expert

February 8, 2012

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The shock of Russia and China’s joint veto of a watered down United Nations resolution seeking to halt the violence in Syria and start a political transition has left many asking what to do next. Failure to produce consensus around the latest Arab League – despite weeks of intense diplomatic efforts – seemed to have firmly closed all diplomatic routes. Many Arab and Western states concluded that Russia and China had not acted in good faith.

However, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveling to Syria and endorsing the Arab League’s initial Plan of Action of November 2, 2011, the international community must seize the opportunity to enforce that initiative through the United Nations.

The most urgent question remains: What can be done to bring an end to violence? Bashar al-Assad’s forces have continued to intensify their assaults on key battleground cities, particularly Homs where more than 400 people have reportedly been killed since last Friday.

Hafez al-Assad’s sons, Bashar and Maher, are clearly using their father’s playbook from the early 1980s in their efforts to tame that city’s resistance, shelling residential areas with increasing firepower before entering to clear them out. The regime is once again calibrating its campaign on the ground to the diplomatic climate, and stalemate at the United Nations has given al-Assad’s forces a new lease of life.

The failed resolution’s Arab and Western backers have reacted with scathing criticisms of Moscow and Beijing as being complicit in the regime’s brutality, and with proposals to continue to isolate President al-Assad through routes that avoid the Security Council. They have indicated a desire to further embrace the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, and pledged to establish a “Friends of a Democratic Syria contact group” to coordinate their efforts.

In the coming days, the Arab League, the European Union and the United States are also likely to impose new, targeted sanctions, specifically designed to weaken the economic base of the regime and to isolate its supporters. While these are good responses and, in the case of the international contact group, long overdue, they will not stop the regime’s brutal crackdown. The international community’s efforts must therefore focus also on altering the situation on the ground. While many would think it futile, especially given the deeply frustrating last eleven months, it is time to return to the United Nations and seek consensus, at least on how to stop the violence.

What is alarming is that in between the massacres of Hama in 1982 and Homs today, the international community has developed no collectively mandated tools or policies to stop such atrocities in Syria. In the absence of such tools, and having failed to gain approval for the Arab League’s plan of January 22, which proposed a political deal that would replace al-Assad with his vice president, we should return to the U.N. this week with the League’s earlier initiative, its Plan of Action of November 2.

That deal – which al-Assad signed yet failed to uphold – demanded the withdrawal of all Syrian military and security forces from cities and towns, and their return to their original home barracks. It also called for the release of prisoners, full and unhindered access to the Arab League’s monitors, as well as allowing peaceful demonstrations.

Security Council endorsement of the League’s Plan through its adoption as a resolution would provide a binding international mandate aimed specifically at halting the violence and protecting Syria’s civilians. If the Syrian regime does not cease its violence, such a resolution would also provide a legitimate starting point for collective international action to enforce the protection of civilians, if necessary.

Meanwhile, on the ground, further strengthening the opposition inside Syria could mitigate al-Assad’s assault and check the ultra-realist calculations of those who continue to support him in the international community. Certainly, withholding such assistance is unlikely to stem the tide of violence.

Key opposition figures I have spoken to have sought urgent communications and logistical assistance to support their activism. They also point to the unfair advantage that al-Assad has had in receiving arms, equipment, and training from Iran and its partner, Hezbollah, as well as from Russia, over the past few months. Only yesterday, I was told that an Iranian truck carrying body armor and other equipment into Syria via Turkey’s Kurdish areas was intercepted by the opposition in Idlib.

Increasingly, Syrians are seeking arms to fight back against the regime. Notably, some who support arming the opposition also stress that weaponry must be provided in a controlled way, and should reach only respected figures who command authority in their communities.

Clearly, both Syrians and concerned outsiders are worried about an uncontrolled proliferation of weapons, which could intensify further an already simmering sectarian conflict. If that conflict continues in its current direction, the international community will have to seriously consider establishing buffer zones on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan, with humanitarian corridors leading up to them (as I have advocated in the past). Such actions – which would necessitate some level of military intervention – would require strong international backing, particularly from Arab countries and Western countries, though there may be a legal precedent in Turkey’s case, based on past agreements with Hafez al-Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Damascus Tuesday was at least publicly touted as an attempt to advance a political deal in Syria. Alarmed by the increasing instability in the country and the nagging feeling that al-Assad may not be able to subdue his population through force alone, Moscow may be trying to engineer a political transition of its own, in keeping with its interests in Syria – a “regime modernization” that introduces a new Russia friendly government in Damascus under the impression of far-reaching political reforms. Al-Assad may be playing along, at least for now, as talk of a new constitution introducing a term limit for the president and a multi-party system, shows. Such efforts, however, will not wash with protesting Syrians facing the regime’s daily brutality who want nothing short of an end of the Baathist regime.

Convincing anyone of the seriousness of Russia’s efforts and the credibility of Lavrov’s mission depends first and foremost on its ability to force an end to the violence. Notably, Lavrov announced shortly after meeting al-Assad that the Syrian President had “completely committed to stopping all forms of violence.” His statement came as Homs continued to face a brutal and sustained bombardment – which, as part of a “widespread systematic practice,” could be tantamount to crimes against humanity.

With political solutions at an impasse, the international community should move quickly to hold Russia to its endorsement of the Arab League’s November initiative, put it to another vote at the Security Council, and form a united front calling for an immediate end to the regime’s appalling use of violence. If Russia and China fail to vote in favor this time, our worst fears about them will be confirmed.