Last Updated: Wed Feb 08, 2012 10:44 am (KSA) 07:44 am (GMT)

Pushing Syrian parties to the edge

Osama Al Sharif

Saturday’s vetoes by China and Russia, which blocked a proposed Security Council resolution on Syria, was a huge setback to Arab and Western efforts to put international pressure on the regime of Bashar Assad. Worse still, it gave Damascus the go ahead to deal the most punishing blow yet to anti-government protesters in Homs, Zabadani and other rebellious towns and districts.

The Arab League’s attempt to internationalise the Syrian crisis has obviously backfired, leaving the regime more defiant than before.

Western and Arab reaction to the double veto was fierce. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it as a travesty.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the draft resolution was “incomplete” and dubbed reaction to the veto as “hysterical and wrong”. China blamed other members of the Security Council for pushing for a vote before bridging differences on its wording.

It will take a lot of intense diplomacy before the Syria case is brought again before the UN.

It is now back to square one for the Arab League which was hoping that the toned-down draft resolution backing its plan for a political resolution of the crisis would enjoy international consensus. It nearly did, with 13 members supporting it.

Russia and China were trying to circumvent a repeat of the Libya scenario, even though the draft resolution said nothing about military intervention. Even the Arab position is clearly against foreign intervention in Syria. But without Moscow’s backing, the international option is now off the table.

That clearly sent the wrong message to the Syrian regime. Less than a day after the resolution had failed to pass, Damascus unleashed its military might against the beleaguered but rebellious neighbourhood of Baba Amr, in Homs, and the resort town of Zabadani, not far from the capital.

Eye witnesses spoke of heavy and indiscriminate shelling that targeted residential buildings and hospitals and resulted in hundreds of deaths.

The failure of the Arab League to pass a resolution at the Security Council emboldened the regime’s resolve to amplify the use of force in an attempt to quash the rebellion in Homs and bring the city to its knees. If successful, the Homs atrocities will encourage the regime to intensify its reliance on the military option to end more than 11 months of anti-government protests.

Russia and China may not be Syria’s best friends even if their veto sends that message. In the absence of international pressure and in the wake of the UN fiasco, the regime will use the coming days and weeks to crush down protests at any cost.

The Russians, who have called on Assad to carry through with his planned reforms, have a vested interest in seeing the regime survive. Syria is one of the few remaining Moscow allies in the region. And while the Russians wouldn’t care less about the manner in which Assad overcomes his internal challenges, their main objective is to see him do that as quickly as possible.

The Chinese have other ulterior motives. They are wary of any attempts to interfere in other countries’ domestic problems, fearing that such a precedent will be used against them in the future. They, too, would like to see Assad resolve his problems as soon as possible, even if that meant a drastic intensification of violence.

The Syria crisis has mired international relations for the time being. The West now wants to create a “Friends of Syria” group of nations to provide support to the Syrian people and further isolate Damascus through economic sanctions.

The Arab League will meet later this month to study its options. It has suspended the work of the observers and incurred the wrath of the Syrian regime by going to the UN. It is unlikely that it will be able to resume contacts with Damascus soon.

But it is not all good news for the Syrian regime. True, it has used the double veto to escalate its war against its people, in the hope that the coming few days will be enough to crush the uprising.

But even if it conquers Homs, that will not spell out the end of the rebellion. Defections within the army have been increasing and the Free Syria Army has been putting up a fight in various areas of the country.

Weapons are now available to defectors and others, and the regime has been facing stiff resistance in Deraa, Idlib, Hama, Homs and small towns not far from the capital. The spectre of a bloody civil war is real enough, and the country could slip into a prolonged internal strife. Sectarian tensions are already high.

The double veto may have bought Damascus precious time to push through with a military solution, but that window of opportunity will soon close.

The international community will find ways to reconcile its differences, if not now then in few months’ time.

Assad would be wrong to count on Russia and China providing cover indefinitely. In fact, the regime may have wasted its last chance to find a political way out of the current debacle. The military option is likely to drive all parties to the edge of an abyss. The future of Syria never looked so dire.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. The article was published in the Jordan Times on Feb. 8, 2012.

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