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Syrian crisis shadowed by outcome in Libya

by John J. Metzler

As the conflict in Syria churns out a ghastly human carnage, diplomatic efforts to halt the violence are shadowed by last year’s intervention in the Libyan conflict, which resulted in a six-month-long military operation to topple a tyrant.

So, when the U.N. Security Council met again on Britain’s initiative to debate the situation in the Middle East, there was a focused theme to stop the spiral of violence in Syria even as there was an underlying and unspoken agreement not to introduce the threat of outside military force.

One year ago the Security Council passed a powerful, but legally open-ended, resolution to protect the besieged Libyan civilians in Benghazi, who were in the gun sights of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. Acting under the “responsibility to protect” principle, the Anglo/French and American mission quickly evolved into a full blown NATO air assault over the vastness of Libya, which ushered in regime change.

With regard to Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov alluded to last year’s Libya resolution: “Whatever goals might be set in any given situation, they should not be achieved by misleading the international community or manipulating UNSC decisions.” This was as much a reference as it was an expression of regret for Moscow’s abstention from voting on the Libya resolution, passed on St. Patrick’s Day.

A year later, there’s hesitation to give the Security Council’s blessing to operations that could involve varied military options. Nonetheless, there’s the redoubling of a diplomatic surge with the Damascus peace mission of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan trying to defuse the widening crisis between Bashar Assad’s dictatorial rule and a plethora of dissident factions both religious and political.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asserted that “what started as a peaceful, popular call for long-denied democratic rights has turned to into a dangerous spiral of violence, leading both Syria and the region into uncertainty.” Ban placed blame on the Assad regime for both its “disproportionate use of force” against its people in “shameful operations.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the Syrian regime’s “horrific campaign of violence”, while imploring “all nations, even those who have previously blocked our efforts, to stand behind the humanitarian and political approach spelled out by the Arab League.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of “risky recipes of ‘geopolitical engineering’ that can result only in the spread of conflict.” But even Lavrov conceded that “there is no doubt that the Syrian authorities bear a huge share of responsibility for the current situation.”

He added, “But one should not ignore the fact that for a long time now, they’ve been fighting not unarmed men, but military units,” among them “groups including al-Qaida.”

Twice in the past six months, Russia, along with the People’s Republic of China, has cynically vetoed a U.N. draft resolution aimed at stopping the bloodshed.

Syria was a longtime Soviet client state, and the Assad regime remains close to Russia as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both Moscow and Beijing have provided diplomatic cover for the Damascus regime in the U.N. Security Council.

With more than 7,500 civilians killed in the crisis so far, and the uncertain outcome of the Kofi Annan mission to Damascus, there’s not much time to stop violence from widening.

Portugal’s Foreign Minister Paulo Portas conceded that the “mission represents the last opportunity to prevent Syria from spiraling into civil war.”

Syria’s three neighbors Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon now play an important role in accepting more than 250,000 refugees from the fighting.

Equally France, the former colonial power, sees the pressing need to defuse this Levantine crisis, which holds political implications not only for the Middle East but also for France near the eve of its presidential elections.

Besides the Arab regional component and French concern over the crisis, many observers look to the United States to weigh in. This would be a mistake since Syria does not involve direct American strategic interests, nor does Washington need expanded military commitments in another Mideast imbroglio.

Senior Pentagon officials remain highly skeptical about the costs and outcome of military intervention, outlining the reality that the Syrian military is far larger and sophisticated than Libya’s.

Syria’s unraveling poses a present danger to Turkey and to Lebanon. Indeed, there’s a clear strategic interest for neighboring Turkey to stop the violence, to stem the refugee outflow and to calm regional unrest. Establishing humanitarian corridors for aid to beleaguered Syrian civilians may be a positive first step.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Gap?” (University Press, 2010).