Analysis: Few options for West in Syria crisis

Associated Press
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov addresses his statement, during the urgent debate on Syria at the 19th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi)

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Russia and China's opposition to swift action ending Syria's bloody crackdown on its uprising leaves the West and its Arab allies with few options.

The self-proclaimed "Friends of Syria" may have to rely on a slow grind of tightened sanctions, a trickle of humanitarian and military aid smuggled across borders — and calls for ever-more-diluted U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Moscow and Beijing twice vetoed Security Council resolutions that strongly condemned Syria. On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced that Paris was preparing yet another resolution, this time focusing on a cease-fire and humanitarian aid.

Yet each attempt to ratchet up international pressure has prompted Russia and China to fight back.

Russia has accused the U.S. of using the Arab uprisings to increase its influence in the Middle East. Resistance from Russia and China have effectively blocked the kind of international backing that NATO forces had when aiding rebels in Libya.

In fact, the reason Russia is so adamant about preventing a U.N. resolution on Syria is that a U.N.-backed no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya was transformed into a sustained NATO air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

Now, the West and its Arab allies are largely restricted to slow-acting steps such as tightening sanctions and getting humanitarian aid into the country.

The Obama administration has also been in discussions with Arab and European partners on the possibility of bringing a new Security Council resolution — one that would press Assad's government to allow in international teams to supply relief to beleaguered cities.

This strategy faces similar obstacles as previous efforts. U.S. officials say they want to avoid a third Russia-China double veto, but do not know if approaching the Syria problem through humanitarian aid instead of the Arab proposal for regime change would soften resistance from Moscow and Beijing.

The goal now, officials say, would be to pass something that advances hopes for peace, even if that means any resolution is significantly less far-reaching than the one blocked by the two powers earlier this month.

But while the international community may talk about humanitarian corridors or safe havens within Syria to shelter refugees, a problem remains: They would require some sort of outside force to ensure security.

It's not even clear how stockpiles of medical and humanitarian supplies that Washington says are being prepared at Syria's borders will get into the country without armed backing.

"No matter how artfully these ideas are constructed, you are inevitably involved with military intervention — I don't care what euphemism you use," said A. R. Norton, a Middle East analyst at Boston University.

As for sanctions, there are few indications they are having much of an effect, and Damascus has said little of its foreign currency is kept outside the country.

With the U.N. saying "well over" 7,500 people have died in the violence, there are growing calls from Arab Gulf states for military aid for the Syrian opposition. Such a mission would invariably involve forces from Europe or the United States, which so far have shown little appetite to mount one without international cover.

And so although the United States balks at the idea, some Middle Eastern nations are now focusing on one of their only other options: arming the Syrian opposition.

"I think we should help (the opposition) by arming them so as to defend themselves. The Arab countries should do that through an Arab and international assembly," Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said Monday on a visit to Norway. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called military aid to the opposition "an excellent idea."

However, even a well-armed Syrian opposition would remain a poorly organized, loose collection of military defectors and civilians, and is unlikely to pose a credible threat to the Syrian army any time soon.

And so for now, it seems the West's best hope for a quick end to the conflict is some kind of military coup against President Bashar Assad.

Twice in the last few days, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has called on Syria's military leaders to turn against the government, saying they would be "hailed as heroes" if they stopped the attacks on civilians.

But unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military turned against the president in the face of popular protests, the upper ranks of Syria's military are considered loyal to Assad.

"I think we are in for a long haul here," Norton said. "I can't see how Bashar Assad and company can survive but I don't see an easy way to get to that denouement."


Paul Schemm has covered the Middle East since 1998. Bradley Klapper contributed reporting from Washington D.C.