It’s not clear how much longer the US will have discretion in what – if anything – to do about Syria. While the Obama administration pesters Russia and China in the UN, Russia and China are shuttling diplomats around the Arab world, coming up with separate plans. The Syria crisis has become as much about a contest for leadership between East and West as it is about the terrible death toll in Syria – and there is little time left for the West to act decisively.
Clearly divided global leaders
The confrontations in the UN have been emblematic of the Asian-Atlantic divide over Syria, but perhaps not as much as a less-publicized sequence of events. In the hours after Russia and China vetoed the Western-sponsored UN resolution in February, Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the “Friends of Syria” vehicle for coordinating international action. The US and Turkey quickly joined forces on the Friends of Syria effort, and a first meeting was scheduled for 24 February in Tunisia.
Russia and China both declined to participate. And their non-participation has taken the form of competing efforts to put a plan together to resolve the Syrian crisis. On 10 March, at a meeting in Cairo – shortly before this week’s UN confrontation with the US – Russia and the Arab League announced a set of agreed principles for ending the conflict. One of those principles is that both sides – the Assad regime and the insurgents – must lay down their arms. Russia will not buy into any proposal that has Assad’s forces observing a unilateral ceasefire.
The Arab League’s agreement on Russia’s “five principles” is a milestone in the effort to get some kind of coalescence around a way forward. Arab League agreement is not universal; it won’t surprise Middle East-watchers that Qatar – home of Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi and recent host of the anti-Israel “Jerusalem conference” – called last week for a military solution in Syria, with Arab troops in the lead. But the Arab League agreement with Russia tends to highlight Qatar as an outlier in that regard.
It appears that Qatar is hoping to urge the West to intervene in Syria, in combination with military forces from Arab partners; i.e., replicate the action in Libya last year. From a Muslim Brotherhood standpoint, wresting Libya from Qadhafi opened the country up to shariazation. But the Arab League as a whole is publicly agreeing with Russia rather than backing Qatar’s play. (And this in spite of Arab League participation in the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia.)
China chimed in a few hours ago with supportive comments about the Russia-Arab League agreement. (Beijing has also gone Russia one better with a six-point plan.) The Chinese had an envoy in Syria last week talking to both the Assad government and the insurgents in an effort to broker a ceasefire, and they are dispatching diplomats around the region to “explain China’s position” and affirm the need for a political solution.
Meanwhile, Turkey plans to host the second Friends of Syria meeting on 2 April. (The dilatory schedule mimics the US-EU approach to Libya in 2011.) Nothing much came out of the first one, and the second meeting is already haunted by the report – denied by Turkish authorities – that Sarkozy had not been invited to it because of the recent French resolution condemning the World War I-era slaughter of Armenians as a genocide.
The lack of momentum for Western-brokered proposals is a serious problem. While it would be too much to say that the Russia-Arab League agreement has momentum at this point, it would also be too much to say that anything put forward by the West is a credible challenge to it. The Arab League doesn’t have the unity to deal with Syria by itself, and has been looking for a strong horse to run with. There is no guarantee at this point that the strong horse will be the US and EU.
Turkish press opined this weekend that the reelection of Vladimir Putin would induce a notable warming trend in Russian-Turkish relations. Putin is a personal friend of President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan; this prediction is solid, although of course it will not eliminate all of the natural sources of friction between the two nations. What it may well do, however, is change the dynamic in which Turkey has found it convenient to throw in with the US on the Syria problem.
If the US is not going to back decisive action in Syria, Turkey may quietly migrate to an accord with Russia on ending the conflict (If Ankara can present this as Russia migrating toward Turkey, so much the better for Erdogan; but Moscow has the agreement in hand with the Arab League.). What we may count on with both Turkey and Russia is a desire to wield the primary influence over the process of establishing a new government in Syria. With the current US administration, the utility of the United States as a patron for this Turkish purpose may not be as great as that of Russia.