In the wake of Russia and China vetoing the most recent Security Council resolution dealing with Bashar, there seems to be a broad consensus in the media that events in Syria are shifting into a new gear. As with so much of the trash that gets written about Syria, this would probably be the story no matter what the situation on the ground, but this time it happens to probably be true, but not in the way that’s generally meant. The general view is that perhaps we can finally move from these boring and lengthy discussions about what to do into a full-blown telegenic civil war, and how lovely that will be! In fairness, that is probably what will happen now. But there is just a chance that the resolution’s defeat will weaken
The whole UN farce has been selective memory practiced at its finest, as never before. That the resolution would collapse was obvious from the very first. Outwardly, the Russians objected to the exclusion of a clause thoroughly abrogating the possibility of military intervention, which the Americans refused to include because, according to Clinton, “no-one wants military intervention”, so there was no need to put it in. Behind the scenes, of course, the Russians can’t possibly put their names to anything that criticises the Syrian government after spending 10 months denying that anything has happened, and Clinton, Juppé, Hague, and the rest can’t agree to a non-intervention clause because they might well want to violate it in a few months’ time.
The Arab League plan itself, in the unlikely event that the Syrian authorities would have obeyed it, would have done nothing to deal with the situation. It was lauded as the ‘Yemeni Solution’, and looking at Yemen should have been enough to gather that it is not a path to emulate. The basic idea was that Bashar should hand over to his Vice-President, who would then run a specially-formed unity government until new elections could be held. This plan, which in Yemen has merely been ineffective, would be disastrous in Syria because the structure of power favours the party, not the President. Neither Bashar nor his father founded the Ba’th Party, and it could survive perfectly well without him. Moreover, the Syrians know this and would not have stopped protesting merely because a well-known face had gone. One suspects that the various peninsular Arab monarchs knew this and had hoped that Bashar would take the Alawis with him when he left, after which no more action would be taken, no matter how dictatorial the country got, because it would be Sunni autocracy.
Apart from being reckless, the ‘Yemeni Solution’ has/had another flaw – it was absolute bollocks. Its whole internal logic worked on the assumption that the Ba’th Party, thinking itself in a desperate situation, is searching feverishly for a way out, and would leap at the chance of being given one. This wildly fantastic scenario would and did go down far better with Western governments than anything based on, say, reality. It assumes that Syria is in an even worse shape than the Saudis and Qataris currently hope it is. But the Ba’th have no such worries about their position – not in the immediate future, at least – and were obviously going to turn down the idea of Bashar handing over to a deputy. But still the plan was (and still is) lauded by the kind of prats who praise, with straight faces, a coalition of eager and sincere democrats headed by the Saudis!
If this morass has proven anything about the Arab League, it is that far from having awoken to fulfill its duty regarding Syria, it is a collection of largely unbelievable governments, split down sectarian and political lines, which are happy to see chaos descend anywhere on the other half of the divide. The exceptions, to the extent that there are any, are the post-Spring nations: Tunisia, Libya, and (slightly) Egypt, countries where the action against the Syrian government is being taken by groups of citizens rather than their leaders.
But if the result is bad for the Arab League and the various Security Council sponsors of the resolution, it is downright catastrophic for the increasingly fractious Syrian National Council. In the days preceding the UN vote, the Syrian opposition-in-exile have been doing their best to get the doubters onside, with Homsi death tolls hastily rounded down post-vote (from 230 to 50) and wild threats against Russian and Chinese interests once the new Syrian leaders take power – which won’t worry the current regimes as I suspect both Putin and Hu will be dead before Ghalioun gets anywhere near power. The resolution’s failure is – or should be – the last straw for the various foreign-based opposition movements, the most prominent of which is the SNC. Their whole reason for existing, as I’ve said elsewhere, has been to provoke a Libya-style intervention against Bashar. They are wildly out of touch with each other, let alone with the tens of thousands of Syrian protestors who have not gone into exile to appear on telly and who are now horrified that so much time and effort has been put into something that was pointless. The Local Coordination Committees, of whom we hear relatively little these days, continue to oppose military intervention or an armed uprising and are really the only group which successfully operates in more than one area of Syria. Perhaps we should pay more attention to them.
Ordinary Syrians – I mean the ones protesting or the ones who are supporting either side in a passive way, the ones who don’t like their country becoming a pawn in the battle to isolate Iran, not the FSA or Ba’thist officials – now have a choice between peaceful protesting to force the government into talks or waging an all-out war. Admittedly, the chances for successful negotiation don’t seem high – the protesters will have to talk to the Ba’th, not Bashar, and anyway they don’t trust the regime, which will be loath to hand over any of its powers – but compared with the horrors which are certain to befall the country and the region in case of a proper civil war, there should at least be an attempt, if only to drag a fragment of legitimacy into the decision to retaliate: we tried to negotiate, that failed, what else can we do? The government’s situation is not as perilous as we would like it to be. Ordinary Syrians, many of whom by now have experience of conflict and violence, will hopefully doubt that allowing the FSA to let rip is the best way to avoid the destruction of their country. The Coordination Councils need to seize this opportunity. Perhaps the time for a peaceful and genuinely representative opposition movement is past, but if there is even a small chance of success, it would be better than war.
A popular campaign is already beginning, as the attacks on Syrian embassies worldwide on Friday night and Saturday morning demonstrate. Notably, those actions consisted of Syrians putting pressure on the Syrian government themselves, rather than through another country or the UN, which has been a more common motive in the past. Whoever starts down the ‘Syrians for Syria’ road will have to act quickly to forestall other more sinister movements. After the failure of the resolution, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already preparing to supply arms to the Free Syrian Army, who have threatened tremendous retaliation for the weekend’s doings in Homs. It will not be long before an attack against one side, real or imagined, leads to retaliation, which will lead to more retaliation ad nauseam à la April 1975 – and I presume we all know what that unfortunate movement led to.