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Syria: Getting Worse in Tolerating the Intolerable?

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UNITED NATIONS - How long will it take for President Bashir al Assad's Damascus government to change, teeter or fall, which it surely will? And how long will it take for the country to be put together again? The longer the carnage continues, the harder it will be for the families of at least 17,000 dead to seek a negotiated settlement rather than revenge.

Russia and China used their veto power to kill a British draft U.N, Security Council resolution, sponsored by the United States, France , Germany and Portugal. The measure threatened - but did not impose - sanctions against the Syrian government, after four months of diplomacy and nearly daily negotiations to curtail the 17-month crisis that has plunged the country into civil war. (see text)

It was the third veto by Russia and China of a council resolution attempting to pressure Assad to follow the peace plan it accepted. Russia, backed by China, has put the blame on all fighting factions, even though only Damascus has the heavy weapons (so far anyway).

Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general and mediator for the United Nations and the Arab League, urged the Security Council to take strong action to stem the bloodshed. While all sides support his six point plan for a negotiated peace and a transitional government, his first demand was for Damascus to stop using tanks, artillery, helicopter gun ships and what have you to blast civilian areas. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made similar strong appeals on Thursday.

The United Nations unarmed military observers in Syria have suspended monitoring operations because of the increasing violence and sit in Damascus deliberating their next step. Norwegian General Robert Mood, head of the 300 monitors, will send some of them home and then see if work ahead is possible. The Security Council Friday is expected to extend the life of the monitors for another month.

Eleven of the 15 Security Council members from all continents voted in favor of the draft resolution. Pakistan, which often follows China's lead, abstained. And so did South Africa, (yes South Africa!). India, often critical of Western positions, voted "yes."

No More Nice Guys
But diplomatic niceties were dropped during the open forum and in questions from reporters afterwards. "The United Kingdom is appalled by the decision of Russia and China to veto this draft resolution aimed at bringing an end to the bloodshed in Syria and to create the conditions for a meaningful political process," said British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.

"Mr. Annan personally told President Assad that he had to send bold signals. But what Assad instead sent were tanks, mortars and helicopter gun ships," said German Ambassador Peter Wittig.

"History will prove them wrong and will judge them," said French Ambassador Gérard Araud of Moscow and Beijing.

Russia argued against imposing sanctions on Damascus. Its ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, called the measure as opening the path to "external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs." Rice called Russia's position "paranoid, if not disingenuous" to claim that the resolution authorized any such thing.

The now-defunct resolution was basically a mild one. It demanded the Council consider sanctions against Damascus in 10 days but does not trigger them, thereby requiring another resolution. It called for Chapter 7 under the U.N. Charter, which makes the measure obligatory and can include military force. But this too needs another resolution specifically calling for this, as in Libya.

The United States and the Europeans have already imposed sanctions but they are not universal unless the Security Council does so also.

Russia's apprehensions - strongmen and revolutions
Russia's explanations scrape the surface. It sells Damascus weapons and it has a naval port there but mainly fears Islamic domination and a threat of unilateral Western domination or intervention, experts say.

For Russia, China and many other nations (often Western ones too), it is easier to deal with a strongman (Egypt's Mubarak or Libya's Gaddafi) than what will happen when a central government collapses. Putting Humpty Dumpy back together again is a painful, chaotic and often a dangerous process. And the best organized political factions are the Islamic parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Russian research group Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Russia fears Islamic radicalism, the "erosion of its superpower status" and unilateral Western military intervention. He wrote:

"Many Russians believe that the collapse of the Assad government would be tantamount to the loss of Russia's last client and ally in the Middle East and the final elimination of traces of former Soviet prowess there -- illusory as those traces may be. They believe that Western intervention in Syria (which Russia cannot counter militarily) would be an intentional profanation of one of the few remaining symbols of Russia's status as a great world power. He (President Vladimir Putin) cannot but sympathize with Mr. Assad as a fellow autocratic ruler struggling with outside interference in domestic affairs."

But the bottom line is that support for an unpopular kleptocracy is to deny legitimate aspirations among many participating in the uprisings. In Syria, 17 months ago, for example, the protests were peaceful and the government responded with guns, arrests, torture and killings. The response, obviously, is no longer serene.

Fractured opposition and insurrection
The fractured opposition of liberal groups, Islamists, Sunni sectarians and others remains divided "between those who favor a peaceful political solution, those who reject any understanding with the government, and those who support continued armed resistance," Annan's deputy, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, said.

And according to Jeffrey Laurenti, a U.N. expert at the Century Fund, "It is those divisions, along with concerns about Qaeda-style jihadists entering the Syrian fray, that have deterred Western governments from committing themselves to armed backing for the insurrection -- notwithstanding the rise of an overtly pro-rebel lobby in Washington ... up the arms ante against the government."

The casualties are enormous, at least 15,000, and everyone has stopped counting. The worst death toll is in Sunni areas where a well-armed pro-government "shabbiha" militia, the most ruthless opponents of the uprising, kill anyone they can find, including children. (Reminders of the "janjaweed" in Sudan's Darfur region?).

"The government has been engaged in a brutal crackdown against demonstrators involving commission of crimes against humanity, such as arbitrary detention, torture, and the killings of thousands of civilians," said Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch, which has done extensive interviews. He told this reporter:

"The crackdown has escalated into indiscriminate military assaults on residential areas and has led to a dire humanitarian situation. Thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries and many more are internally displaced. After months of peaceful protests, some opposition members have also carried out abuses like kidnapping and torture. The government has enacted some reforms, but the ongoing bloody repression indicates its resistance to real reforms that might lead to true political participation, free expression and assembly."

What now?
The Annan plan is not dead yet, although it certainly is on life support.

Richard N. Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the United States should more or less ignore the United Nations.

"To the contrary, they should form a coalition of the willing and able, composed of NATO countries, selected Arab governments, and others that are committed to increasing sanctions against not just Syria but those countries supporting it, building up the strength and political appeal of the Syrian opposition, pressing for war crimes indictments against Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle, planning for strikes against Syrian chemical munitions, and preparing for a post-Assad Syria."

Much of that is already being done in the "Friends of Syria" grouping but no one is yet willing to start a military conflict with the Russians - and many NATO allies are wary of military action without Security Council approval. In the end, negotiations, if any are successful, will need U.N. legitimacy, humanitarian and other aid, or we will end up with the isolation the United States experienced in the 2003 Iraq war.

Yet such plans certainly are under discussion. Said Ambassador Rice:

"The United States has not and will not pin its policy on an unarmed observer mission that is deployed in the midst of such widespread violence and that cannot even count on the most minimal support of this Security Council.

"Instead, we will intensify our work with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime and to deliver assistance to those in need...We and others increasingly will have no choice but to look to partnerships and actions outside of this Council to protect the Syrian people."

But no one is sure exactly what this means, before or after the U.S. November elections.