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International tensions over Syria have risen again. The meeting of minds at the ministerial meeting in Geneva at the end of June has turned out to be incomplete, as both Western and Russian expectations of a fundamental shift in the other's stance have proven to be wishful thinking. The apparent concessions the United States made to Russia in the language of the final communiqu in Geneva; and Russia's stated willingness not to sign any new arms contracts with Damascus were only tactical moves.
The Syrian opposition leaders who traveled to Moscow in early July immediately voiced their disappointment that Russia was not ready to turn against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia then tabled a draft resolution at the UN Security Council that failed to satisfy the US and its allies, and the US-proposed counter-draft, complete with new condemnations and sanctions against the Syrian authorities, was criticized by Moscow and Beijing for being unbalanced. A new round of international controversy makes the prospect of a full-scale civil war in Syria ever more likely.
This argument has been borne out by developments on the ground in Syria. The reports of a new massacre of innocent civilians, this time in the village of Treimsa, are particularly disturbing. Like the previous one at Houla, this despicable act of violence has been blamed on forces loyal to Assad, but no independent confirmation has been possible. The bodies, wrapped in blankets and shown on television around the world, have mobilized popular support in the West for some resolute action to stop the bloodshed.
The Barack Obama administration in the US, defending its control of the White House in the November presidential elections, has been criticized by the Republicans for not launching a military intervention on humanitarian grounds and accused of using Russia's intransigence as a pretext for doing nothing. The Republican critics, of course, know fully well that intervening in Syria is a very different proposition from last year's experience in Libya, but in an election year they are only too happy to attack the incumbent president as indecisive. In what is shaping up as a surprisingly close presidential race, Obama can hardly afford to ignore Syria. He has to act.
But action, for Obama, is unlikely to be a military operation. A political transition would be much more to his liking. However, a successful transition in Syria requires negotiating with Assad, not just pressuring him into retirement. It also requires consolidating the highly fractious Syrian opposition and taking its representatives to the bargaining table with the government in Damascus.
A political transition, finally, requires policy coordination among the world's leading powers at the UN Security Council and cooperation with the regional heavyweights, such as Iran. The last time it was done, in Yemen, the negotiating process had more than the usual share of ups and downs, and lasted many months. Yet, although for many, the result has been a disappointment, a civil war has been averted.
The transition in Yemen, however, was all at the hands of the US and its principal ally in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia. The rest of the Arab states, along with China and Russia, accepted the results of the settlement worked out by the Yemeni parties and the US-Saudi peacemakers. The only thing that makes the Syrian situation similar to the one in Yemen is that, at the present stage, a negotiated solution is still possible, although it is becoming increasingly more remote.
The logic of war, in Syria, is becoming evidently more powerful than the logic of peace. The Syrian opposition talks about a revolution to topple the regime, while President Assad is maneuvering to stay in power, whatever the cost. As the civil war broadens its scope and claims more lives, reconciliation becomes more difficult to imagine, never mind engineer.
As Syrian society unravels, the country has drawn Islamic militants from across the region, and there is little patience among the regional players. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran view Syria as a battlefield in a regional Sunni-Shiite contest, which would destabilize the region from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. Iraq already sees itself as a potential new battleground in that geopolitical and religious competition. While the Turks are also concerned about what is happening in the neighboring former Ottoman provinces. The Israelis, who gave up on Assad some time ago, are primarily preoccupied with the Iranian threat.
Meanwhile, at the UN Security Council, two rival concepts of the global order have clashed. The US promotes democratic change across borders, and its European allies, Britain and France, advocate humanitarian intervention to save lives. China and Russia, on the other hand, defend international stability based on state sovereignty. This is not just a small difference of opinion. And although, in principle, the gulf between the two concepts is not so wide as to preclude cooperation in resolving particular issues, time is running out.
If a solution to the Syria problem is not found soon by the five powers entrusted with special responsibility for world peace, not only will a country of 20 million descend into wholesale carnage, but the prospects for future conflict management in the world, from Iran to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, will become much bleaker.
The author is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
(China Daily 07/18/2012 page9)