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Syria's Deepening Crisis

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
February 6, 2012

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Amid ongoing violence in Syria against anti-government protestors and opposition fighters, the United States closed down its embassy (AP) in Damascus Monday and pulled all U.S. diplomats out of the country. The decision came just two days after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution (PDF) supporting an Arab League plan that would require the government to cease all violence and facilitate a transition to democracy. The resolution failed to pass despite dropping provisions in the draft seen as the "most painful measures," such as a voluntary arms embargo on Damascus. The veto prompted widespread condemnation of Russia and China from Western and Arab countries.

What's at Stake

The eleven-month crackdown in Syria has killed more than 5,400 people, and analysts say the failure of the resolution may lead to increased bloodshed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of a "brutal civil war" (LAT), a concern echoed by the head of the Arab League (Reuters).

The failure of a UN resolution, warn experts like Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, could lead to regional and global powers starting a proxy war by aiding different factions inside Syria, worsening the situation. Russia, which has a naval base in Syria, continues to arm the Assad regime, its only big ally in the Middle East. Although Qatar's official position rejects arming the opposition (al-Jazeera), some reports suggest Qatar is already arming the Free Syrian Army (Guardian) with Saudi blessing.

The Debate

Even as Russia and China face growing criticism, there is no consensus among analysts on the question of intervention in Syria. The shadow of Libya looms; some observers note that NATO went beyond the letter of the UN resolution to lead the mission for Muammar al-Qaddafi's removal and arm the opposition. CFR's Steven A. Cook, an advocate for intervention in Syria to bring down Assad, writes that "one of the real reasons that observers seem reluctant to consider an intervention in Syria may be because Libya took so long to bring Qaddafi down, which was the unstated but unmistakable goal of NATO's missions." Daniel Byman of Brookings (ForeignPolicy.com) also calls for intervention, warning that without it, Assad could rule for years.

However, other experts say the Syrian opposition is weak and divided, making intervention riskier than it was in Libya. CFR Senior Fellow Ed Husain cautions that Western intervention risks spreading Syria's internal conflict to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, and Iran. Worse, he writes, "there is a real possibility of the emergence of an al-Qaeda-inspired organization inside Syria to fight 'Western imperialism,' much like al-Qaeda or the 'Sunni insurgency' in Iraq."

Policy Options

The Arab League countries' foreign ministers are set to meet on February 12 to discuss the Syrian crisis. Also, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed the creation of an international contact group (FT), "Friends of Syria," with European and Arab partners to back the Arab League's call for Assad to step aside and withdraw troops. The group might aid the opposition, but it remains unclear which nations would be part of it and what it would do.

CFR's Robert M. Danin supports the formation of the "Friends of Syria" group to heighten diplomatic pressure on Syria. He prescribes other steps to help Syria without intervening militarily: pushing for an arms embargo, tightening sanctions on the Syrian government, and taking steps to indict Assad and his supporters at the International Criminal Court.

Background Materials

Marc Lynch of George Washington University says "the end of the UN option will now make the goal of regime change in Damascus (ForeignPolicy.com) more explicit."

At ForeignAffairs.com, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes that Russia vetoed the Syria resolution at the UN because it feels burned by last year's international intervention in Libya and it harbors suspicions about the United States' motives.

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