The Arab Spring surprised external and domestic observers alike; no one expected the magnitude of the popular uprisings, the exact nature of demands, or the direction they would take. So it may be unsurprising that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been inconsistent in its support of UN-upheld human rights and freedoms in many of these situations. But the particular inconsistency in the reactions of the Council to the ongoing Syria crisis allows us to identify and disentangle several underlying causes and to predict delay.
Sniperphoto agency/Demotix:all rights reserved
On the one hand, we may observe the established major powers – the United States, its allies and Russia – profoundly recalibrating their global strategies and what they perceive as their interests in world politics. The Arab Spring has exposed an important dynamic in major power global relations that have been crystallizing since the end of the Cold War. At the heart of the matter is western (NATO) opacity over Russia’s global status, which has in turn incentivised the latter’s search for opportunities to affirm its right to revive its past glory. Relative to the capabilities of the United States, Russia’s military and economic recovery since the collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed it to be more assertive in its reaction to American-led Middle East strategies. The global balance of power is confounded today by a US in the throes of an unknown economic situation and deepening divisions. Moreover, this position of the US is worsened by their reliable British allies having to face up to the repercussions of domestic unrest.
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring is proving to be a congenial medium for Russia to make a legitimate comeback as a global power to contend with. Russia had arms sales contracts with Libya and Syria long before the uprisings, which it has sought to honour in the midst of internal revolts. The Russian Navy’s undertaking in 2007 to rebuild its global bases was followed early in 2010 with the initiation of a massive project to develop and modernize two Syrian ports. Russian naval projects in Aleppo and Latakia would allow Russia a massive military presence in the Mediterranean. These projects are indicators of a Russian worldview which accepts military expansion as an option in seeking a counterbalance to American pre-eminence in bases across the Middle East. These long-term strategic interests make concerted action – or an agreement on a meaningful diplomatic or operational set of moves – far more challenging.
Related to this aspect we also have Syria’s relations to its Levantine neighbourhood. Syria has long dominated Lebanon’s political-security processes, has kept a “no-peace, no-war – but surely no violence” status quo on Israel’s borders, and is a major player in Iran’s intricate game of power struggles in Western Asia. Moreover, with the Arab League and Arab diplomacy in shambles, no legitimate local actor exists to either help in a transition in Syria or mediate in the uprisings. These regional realities provide the sitting regime in Damascus with leverage because its absence will make all three fronts unpredictable – at least in the short to medium term. Here, a problematic feature in major powers’ grand strategizing is exposed. While major powers have great stakes in stabilizing that region, their strategies towards it have been ad-hoc. In particular, since at least 2000 – signified by the decline/end in the Arab-Israeli peacemaking processes – Russia and the US have failed to devise coherent and well-planned approaches, either collectively or separately. The Arab Spring has pushed the two powers to confront their deficiencies, and their policies today look more like scrambling than grand diplomacy.
Moreover, delays are to be expected because of an apparent lack of interest by the western powers to push the UNSC for a military intervention in Syria given the experience of coalition-building for Libya. The mixed Russian reactions to the American-British-French led operation in Libya (regardless of its outcome) will deter the US from spearheading action against Syria where Russian interests run much deeper.
The final dimension is related to Syria itself. Two realities are almost certain as of today. One is that protestors are at a point of no-return, and although largely disunited, have perceived that anything is better than a halt in their activism. The other reality is that news emerging from Libya about an imminent conclusion to military operations will certainly galvanize the Syrian street. The regime in Syria is unable to force an end to street protests, while the opposition is incapable of providing any transitional alternative. Hence, external powers and the UNSC itself have fallen back on a “wait and see” strategy which is likely to continue given their existing differences.
The United Nations Security Council is the preferred diplomatic forum for major powers to showcase their preferences, diplomatic capabilities, signal commitments to allies, and compete for more say, in the setting of the rules of global and regional orders. Such established institutions also signal major power perceptions of their global role, the role others see them in, as well as the mismatch between perceived and assigned status. Moreover, UNSC proceedings (especially voting and veto powers) assign equal weight to the permanent members when deciding on issues of global concern. Hence dialogue and conflict inside the Council reflect major power competition through political means; these complement military balancing and operational demonstrations of resolve in regional theatres. In short, how the Security Council acts matters for Russia and the United States.
The interaction between the above dimensions and factors makes clear public positions on Syria highly challenging for all the major powers, let alone arriving at a concerted action via the UNSC. The Syrian people remain at the forefront of this chapter of the Arab Spring, and the Syrian street will determine its own progress and future.