US & Canada

PJ Crowley: Syria crisis upends Mid-East positions

The UN Security Council meets in New York to talk about the situation in Syria 31 January 2012

In this week's United Nations Security Council deliberations concerning Syria - amid a fundamental disagreement about what to say about it, much less what to do - the principal actors talked about history: being on the right side of it or preventing the writing of another sad chapter of it.

The narratives used were quite familiar: defending the status quo, supporting the aspirations for revolutionary reform and demanding responsible governance in accordance with international norms.

But the key players - the United States, Russia and the Arab League - had all traded places.

As if in the midst of a game of musical chairs, they were all advancing policy prescriptions markedly different than those held in previous decades, even in previous months.

During most of the Cold War the United States was, by and large, the staunch defender of the status quo and supported existing governments regardless of how autocratic, corrupt or unpopular, as long as they sided with the "free" world.

All options were binary. The watchword was stability. Knowns trumped unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, whether known or not.

The US pushed political transformations everywhere else.

Line in the sand

But in the Middle East there were always more compelling priorities: the need for stable governments to offset revolutionary Iran; fears of weapons of mass destruction (Iraq was about democracy only when the WMD went missing); energy markets to reassure; and then terrorism to contain.

Reform, let alone genuine democracy, was an aspiration, but would follow other developments, such as Middle East peace.

Image caption Hillary Clinton has spoken about the importance of respecting the aspirations of the Syrian people

To its credit, as the dictatorial dominos wobbled across the region, there was a brief hesitation and then a dramatic shift.

US policy left its traditional walled compound, moved to the street and embraced the unknown (except in Bahrain where, because of Iran, the binary logic still holds).

Now Russia is the great defender of the status quo.

One reason for that is commercial: Russia resents the fact that every time the UN is asked to take action, it is asked to pay the piper, especially the forfeiture of lucrative contracts involving Moscow's shrinking armaments industry.

Russia has been losing market share and influence in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War, notably in Iran (where Russia has actually been responsive to nuclear and weapons concerns), Iraq (now buying American), and Libya (which will undoubtedly shop in the future in Europe or the United States).

Syria is a last bastion and Moscow has drawn its line in the sand.

Too close to home

Moscow has been an Assad family friend for decades and a major investor in Syria.

Outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a lucrative arms deal with Syria in 2010. Hence, Russia has made it clear it will run cover for its valued client, for as long as it can, blocking significant action beyond diplomatic rhetoric.

Friends don't let friends get overthrown, especially after Libya.

As Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week from Australia, "Regime change is not our profession."

Russia was caught off guard in March 2011 by the unprecedented and bold Arab League call for a humanitarian intervention to protect the Libyan people.

Image caption Experts fear the violence in Syria may tip into a protracted struggle or civil war

Like China, it is no fan of the concept of a "responsibility to protect" and resists any notion that the international community can intervene in the sovereign affairs of nation states.

If Libya is a model of effective multilateral action, Russia will exercise its veto if necessary to ensure it doesn't happen again - or at least any time soon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the UN this week about the aspirations of the Syrian people.

"Syria belongs to 23 million people," she said, "not to one man or his family."

Russia does not have an aspirational foreign policy. Its real focus right now is the political fortunes of Vladimir Putin, not Bashar al-Assad.

Unexpected and unwelcome protests in Russia have challenged the legitimacy of Mr Putin's arranged plan to return to the presidency for presumably another 12 years.

Any UN resolution that appears to advocate term limits, much less regime change, will strike Russia too close to home.

Proxy war

Of all the positional shifts, arguably the most remarkable is that of the Arab League, historically a steadfast supporter of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, most notably its fellow members.

The call for Mr Assad to give way is out of character, but reflects the pressure these conservative governments feel to respond in a meaningful way to the clear regional call for change.

For the Arab League, Libya was a relatively easy lift - no-one liked Gaddafi and his antics. Libya was always a fringe regional player.

Syria, on the other hand, is part of the region's centre.

One factor behind the Arab League's shift is personal: Bashar al-Assad has ignored the advice of his peers repeatedly over the past several months, declining to present even the pretence of co-operation with the Arab League observer mission.

Another consideration is containment. The expanding influence of Iran, with Syria's help, is a major concern among the Sunni-dominated governments in the neighbourhood.

Whether Syria is yet a civil war, it is already a proxy war in the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for ascendancy in the Gulf.

A final factor is dynamic of the Arab awakening.

The Arab League, like the US, has begrudgingly recognised that the status quo is unsustainable. All governments have taken some steps - modest in most cases - towards reform.

Regional leaders are acutely aware of Mr Assad's boast a year ago that the Arab Spring won't visit Syria. And it has.

They all know deep down that this is fundamentally not about foreign conspiracies. They recognise in some way that they can no longer take their legitimacy to govern for granted.

That is truly historic.

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