Monday, 13 February 2012

The time for talk on Syria is over

The Daily Star
Tuesday, February 14 2012
By Michael Glackin

Here’s a thought. Imagine that Russia and China had supported the recent diplomatic maneuvers at the U.N. Security Council to further isolate Syria. What difference would it have made to the innocent people currently being gunned down by President Bashar Assad’s troops? Absolutely none.

The limits of diplomacy are laid bare in the daily death toll on the streets of Homs, where more than 400 civilians are understood to have been killed in the government’s offensive against the city. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 civilians have been killed by Syrian security forces since the first demonstrations began 11 months ago, with some estimates putting the figure much higher. In Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa the British government believes that thousands of Syrians have suffered torture and sexual violence, including possible instances of the rape of children.

Assad is a desperate man who no longer cares that he presides over what is now the most violent country in the Middle East. And the murder, or “some mistakes committed by some officials,” as the Syrian president memorably described the human carnage during an interview with American journalist Barbara Walters, will continue in the absence of decisive action by the rest of the world.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom have firmly ruled out military action and insist that they have no intention of arming the still bitterly divided Syrian opposition. British Foreign Secretary William Hague was at pains in the first week of February to stress that his government has had “no contact” with the Free Syrian Army during its consultations with Syrian opposition groups.

It remains to be seen whether the Arab League has the stomach to fight a war with one of its members, despite increased speculation that Qatar has been supplying military aid to the rebels. At an Arab League meeting on Sunday, however, Arab states said they would seek to provide Syrian opposition groups with political and material support. Turkey has also been more vocal in the past week, but has had to tread carefully amid fears that its outspokenness might drive Syria’s Kurds into Assad’s arms.

Hague said that the U.K. and other nations would look for a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly, though these are non-binding. Saudi Arabia has circulated a draft similar to the one that was vetoed by the Security Council. The foreign secretary also outlined proposals for a “Friends of Syria” group of countries under the aegis of the Arab League, which would increase sanctions against the Assad regime.

In reality the “Friends of Syria” proposal is the outcome of the British government and Western countries in general casting around for a new policy toward Syria and failing to find one. Last year, the Cameron government appointed Frances Mary Guy, a former ambassador to Lebanon, to coordinate relations with Syria’s opposition – or as one official put it more pithily, “to knock their heads together.” A Foreign Office official told me on Feb. 9 that Guy was “getting to grips” with the task. “The Syrian opposition is not at the same stage as the Libyan opposition, it will take time,” the official noted.

In plain English that means the head-knocking has failed. Guy has met with opposition leaders in London, Paris, Ankara and Istanbul, but despite her travels, insiders concede that creating a credible – never mind representative – opposition, is all but impossible.

Many of the groups refuse to even speak to each other. Just one example of the task facing Guy is that the U.K., along with France and the U.S., has urged the main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council, to “reach out” to the Kurdish National Council, which represents the majority of Syrian Kurds. However, despite tentative negotiations between the two groups, that plea has not led very far. Many Kurds view the SNC as a front for Turkish ambitions in the region. Then there are the stark divisions between the SNC and the rival National Coordination Body.

At the same time, the opposition has no regional foothold in Syria as did the Libyan rebels in Benghazi. Privately, British government officials admit there is no plausible route to the opposition seizing power, even if it were actually capable of forming a government.

Russia and China have defended Assad only partly to protect their business interests. Russia’s navy has access to the Tartous port, however Russian arms sales to Syria, worth between $700 million and $1 billion, account for an estimated 7 percent of Russia’s annual global arms sales, which is not particularly high. Chinese exports to Syria have risen sharply in recent years, but traffic along the so-called “New Silk Road” is decidedly one way these days. China exports around $2.5 billion worth of goods annually to Syria, and has invested in a number of its oil production and exploration projects. Syrian exports to China are worth less than $6 million.

Against this background Russian and Chinese diplomatic moves are nothing short of shameful. But if we accept that arming Syria’s divided opposition is not sensible and that military intervention, even by the Arab League, is a non-starter, what else can be done?

In the absence of meaningful action, the West, Russia, China and the Arab League can do one thing: They can demand that Syria open up Homs and other cities under siege to international aid agencies. Indeed, that is precisely what the Arab League intended to do by proposing on Sunday that the U.N. deploy a peacekeeping force in Syria. The Arab states know the divided Security Council will not to pass such a decision, but are calculating that a compromise resolution will advocate support for a humanitarian mission.

Homs is a humanitarian disaster and it shames the international community to allow it to remain so. That is surely something that everyone can agree on. Providing the means to enable relief agencies to help those who are enduring the unendurable, whether it is done through the offices of Russia and China or some other means, is surely the very least that diplomacy in this day and age can achieve.

The “Friends of Syria” group, when it meets on Feb. 24, will no doubt come up with new words of condemnation and fresh sanctions. But while it deliberates, murder and mayhem reign in Syria. The time for talk should be over.

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