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Syria: What next? (redux)

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COMMENTS

30 May 2012 08:47

Tim Dunne is Director of Research, Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Queensland.

The latest issue of Foreign Policy has a contribution to the Syria intervention debate by the regular columnist James Traub. He illustrates the swinging of the intervention pendulum: too much and there is a backlash against Western militarism; not enough and there is a backlash against endless rounds of (apparently hopeless) diplomacy.

After the brutal shelling of Houla by Syrian military forces, Traub is right to argue that Kofi Annan's six-point plan is in trouble. He also reflects on Kofi Annan's strong support for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm while at the same time committing himself to a negotiated settlement — these two goals must be sequenced rather than regarded as alternatives.

Traub appears to support tougher action, yet recognises that supporting the Syrian Free Army could fuel a horrendous all-out sectarian war. He is left to conclude that no alternatives are likely to reduce the level of harm. Yet he thinks the curtain should fall on Annan's plan. Diplomacy, he argues,  has run its course. A 'plan B' is needed. The only trouble, he admits, is that there is 'no plan B'.

The recent NATO summit in Chicago appears to have avoided serious discussion of military possibilities. NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen repeated his earlier stated view that 'NATO has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria' (here is no doubt that NATO's position is in part shaped by the need to assuage Russia over plans to construct a missile defense system for Europe). This suggests NATO has undertaken no serious military planning, and Turkey does not seem to have intimated that it might activate the collective defence article in NATO's charter. Therefore, there is no serious 'plan B', at least for now. Or is there?

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice's comment is instructive here: in her words, all military possibilities risk more violence, 'which is why the last peaceful game in town is one worth pursuing, even if it's a low-probability game, which we readily admit it is'. Rice's statement is equivocal — diplomacy is 'worth pursuing'. It does not rule out tougher measures such as humanitarian corridors or safe areas.

Anne-Marie Slaughter's suggestions, discussed in my previous post, contain insights into how the balance could be tipped from military escalation on all sides to de-escalation. Rodger Shanahan raised some important objections to Slaughter's ideas. Yet given the paucity of alternatives, the power of censuring the Syrian regime, as the UN Security Council did last Sunday, should not be overlooked. Not should the power of international public opinion, informed by the pictures and words from citizen witnesses to the brutality of President Assad's regime.

Photo by Flickr user European Parliament.

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