Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

UN 'Statement’ on Syria and Western Policy Options

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Following on from Daniel's blog post regarding the UN Security Council statement condemning the violation of human rights in Syria, this blog post looks at the UN statement and considers Western policy options.

After months of negotiations the Security Council finally passed a statement, which "condemns widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities." However, the Security Council also called for "an immediate end to all violence and urges all sides to act with utmost restraint, and to refrain from reprisals, including attacks against state institutions." To read the full statement click here.

While the Security Council ‘statement' is welcome, it is not as strong as a ‘resolution' and by calling for "all sides to act with utmost restraint" including from attacks on "state institutions", it does not express support for the Syrian demonstrators or call for regime change. The reference to ‘all sides' appears to have been a gesture to China and Russia who had previously threatened to veto a resolution condemning Assad.

The statement is also ‘toothless' in that it contains no provision for sanctions or other punitive measures against Syria, nor does it call for a referral of Syrian leaders to the International Criminal Court. The only future action provided for is a request to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report back to the council within seven days on the situation in Syria. It does not specify what follow-up there might be to his report.

Given the weak nature of the statement - and the likely continuing inability of the Security Council to pass a stronger resolution in the face of Russian and Chinese objections - it appears that it is left to the US and other Western nations to consider strategies to increase the pressure on Assad.

Former Senior American official Elliot Abrams, writing in the Wall Street Journal, notes that USA's reaction to the events in Syria has been "slow and unsteady", he writes:

"May 19, President Obama called for a ‘serious dialogue' between the regime and the protesters in a speech at the State Department. Yet on July 31, he said ‘the courageous Syrian people who have demonstrated in the streets will determine its future.' Which is it?"

An editorial in the New Republic also criticises the US for being slow to act on Syria, and states that is a "long tradition in American foreign policy of doing the right thing but doing it late." The editorial goes on to note how slow US reactions to human rights abuses in Bosnia, Iran and Libya were also missed opportunities for intervention that had devastating results.

Military intenvention appears unlikely in the extreme, particularly in light of the recent NATO intervention in Libya, which has so far been unable to bring down Gaddafi. However, aside from military intervention there are number of steps that the US could adopt to put pressure on Assad to go.

Recently bi-partisan legislation was announced by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), which would "establish tougher U.S. sanctions against Syria and hold President Bashar al-Assad's regime accountable for its human rights abuses. Under this bill, the President would be called on to block access to the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts for companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria." Currently, the U.S. bans most export and import trade with Syria but sanctions do not extend to foreign companies. The joint statement explains that, "with approximately one-third of Syria's export revenues coming from oil, the Gillibrand-Kirk-Lieberman legislation targets the oil and gas sector of the economy."

M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder of Save Syria Now! has listed a number of steps for the US to adopt that would assist the Syrian people. The steps are as follows:

1. President Obama must clearly state that Assad must go.

2. Full economic sanctions against all trade with Syria except for food and humanitarian relief with the end of all business transactions and private company involvement in Syria and the end of all energy sector involvement.

3. Full and extensive freezing of US and European assets beyond that already done of anyone directly connected to the Assad regime including for example Assad's wife's (Asma) assets in London.

4. Removal yesterday of the Syrian Ambassador to the US and the immediate dismissal of any and all Syrian diplomats in the US.

5. Demand the opening of Syrian society to media, NGO's and international observers for accountability.

6. A policy that helps the opposition in and outside of Syria, with the caveat that Islamists and others for example that do not believe in the ideas of liberty and freedom are "on their own."

Elliot Abrams also has a number of suggestions for US policy to bring down Assad and avert civil war in Syria. He suggests that the US can help avoid civil war by separating the Assad family from the rest of the Alawite community, who may not like Assad but fear that they will be victims of a Sunni majority. He writes:

"Across Alawite society there are varying degrees of loyalty to the Assads. There are close supporters who know their fate is tied to that of Assad, but there are many others who care little about the ruling family but are paralyzed by fear of vengeance against the entire community after President Assad is gone. The Alawite generals in the Syrian Army should be key targets for a campaign of psychological warfare urging them to salvage their community's post-Assad future by refusing now to kill their fellow citizens. The U.S. should address them publicly, but also reach out to them privately through whatever intelligence or military channels are available."

Abrams implores the US to stop speaking about ‘the regime' and instead speak about ‘the Assads' and say that Assad "must and will go". He writes:

"The Alawites, and the generals in particular, won't think hard about their place in Syria's future until they are convinced Assad is finished."

Abrams writes that the US should be urging the Syrian opposition clearly state their commitment to civil peace when the Assads are gone. He writes:

"they should pledge that post-Assad Syria will protect all minorities-the Alawites, Kurds and the very nervous Christian communities. They should agree now to an international role in providing these protections and guarantees. The more detailed these pledges are, and the more publicity and international support they get, the more good they will do inside Syria."

Abrams also suggests that:

  •   The US consider that the Turkish government may be able to be of assistance as they turned on Assad even before the US;
  •   US Ambassador Ford should be recalled to demonstrate a final break with the Assads, or he should be deployed repeatedly, as he was in Hama, to symbolize America's support for the opposition; 
  •   The US should be putting more pressure on the Syrian business community-Sunni, Christian and Alawite-so that it increasingly sees the Assads as a drain on the nation; and
  • the fall of Gadhafi would help bring down Assad, he writes:
"the single event that would most help bring down the Assads would be the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. It still isn't clear today if the lesson of the Arab Spring is that dictators are doomed or that dictators willing to shoot peaceful protesters can win. Once Gadhafi goes, the oxygen Libya is sucking from the Arab struggle for democracy will circulate again. The NATO effort-however poorly implemented-will have finally been a success, and threats of possible military action to protect civilians, especially refugees, will have some credibility."

These strategies for action against Syria suggest that a lot more can be done by the US and other Western countries to put pressure on Assad to go. Each day that the international community stalls on acting, more Syrians are being killed. The history of slow reactions by the international community to other large-scale human rights violations, and the inability of the UN to act, suggests that hesitation and half-heartedness may have terrible consequences.

Sharyn Mittelman