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The big players inside the U.N.’s Syria action

On Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 31, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, who heads the league’s Syria committee, will brief U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Security Council ministers on their plan to press President Bashar al-Assad from power. The discussion is ...

On Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 31, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, who heads the league’s Syria committee, will brief U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Security Council ministers on their plan to press President Bashar al-Assad from power. The discussion is likely to pit the United States, its European partners, and several Arab governments against China and Russia. Here are the key players and how they are shaping up as the diplomatic debate on Syria reaches a tipping point that may alter the course of history in the Middle East.

Mr. Consensus: Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League

Egypt’s former foreign minister and U.N. ambassador, Elaraby has wound up in a peculiar position: leading the Arab League in an effort to push Syria’s president from power. It has placed Elaraby in the awkward position of pursuing an initiative that his own government has not embraced. Elaraby has played a low-key diplomatic role thus far, focusing his efforts on building consensus within the Arab League for the decision to turn to the U.N. Security Council effort. He has also been working to convince Syria’s two closest allies on the council, China and Russia, to back their initiative. "Contacts are underway" with China and Russia, he said. "I hope these two countries will alter their position concerning the draft U.N. Security Council resolution which would adopt the Arab plan," Elaraby said in remarks published by Egypt’s official MENA news agency. We will be better able to judge his role as consensus-builder when some of the Arab’s more skeptical governments — including Algeria and Iraq — make their public statement to the council on Tuesday.

The Tip of the Spear: Hamad Bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar

The Qatari prime minister has forged a role for his nation as a major diplomatic player in Africa and the Middle East, negotiating crises from Darfur to Sudan to Yemen, most notably backing the armed revolutionaries that overthrew former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi last year. As the chair of the Arab League’s committee overseeing Syria policy, the Qatari prime minister wields enormous influence over the Arab world’s response to the crisis. An early ally of Damascus, Al Thani has emerged as one of its most strident critics, denouncing its failure to cooperate with Arab League monitors and promoting sanctions. He has publicly called on the U.N. Security Council to back the Arab League decision to promote a political transition in Syria that would require Assad step aside from power. He is expected to press doubters, primarily the Chinese and Russians, to support the initiative.

The No Show: Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, head of the Arab League monitoring mission

This controversial Sudanese general, who has deep ties to accused war criminal and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has come under scrutiny since his appointment because of his role as a top commander in Darfur during the Sudan’s bloody counterinsurgency campaign. Al-Dabi was likely put forward for the job because of his role in Doha-based peace talks with Darfuri rebels and his familiarity with Qatari officials. The Sudanese national has been viewed as more sympathetic to the Syrian government than some of its more outspoken critics in the Arab League. Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin told me in an interview last week that he had requested al-Dabi brief the council on his findings at Tuesday’s meeting. But the request was turned down by Elaraby, who suspended the mission on safety grounds. The council’s Western diplomats say that the findings of the observer mission have been overtaken by the Arab League initiative in the Security Council. But a top Russian official, Gennady Gatilov, insisted that the council still receive a briefing on the mission’s findings.

Mr. Nyet: Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. envoy

Churkin has emerged as the primary diplomatic spoiler. Syria remains Russia’s most important strategic ally and arms buyer in the Middle East, and the country hosts a Russian naval port and a network of listening stations. Churkin told me in an interview last week that he has no intention of "ditching" this long-standing Russian ally. Last October, Russia and China cast a double veto to block a Western-backed resolution threatening to sanction Syria if it failed to end its crackdown on protesters and comply with several other demands. Churkin has since tried to refocus the council’s energy into pressing the Syrian government and the armed opposition to begin political talks aimed at resolving the crisis. Churkin has defended his position on the grounds that Western powers abused a Security Council mandate authorizing the use of force for the protection of civilians in Libya, instead abusing the resolution to help forcibly overthrow Qaddafi’s government. He maintains the current Western effort in the Security Council is also intended to bring about regime change in Syria.

The Low Key Negotiator: Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

In the months following the initial Syrian crackdown on anti-government protesters, Britain and France took the lead in pressing for Security Council action to stop Assad from killing demonstrators. Rice, however, favored a less confrontational approach in the council, fearing that a resolution threatening sanctions against Syria would backfire, leading to a Russian veto and a political victory for Assad. By September, Rice and other U.S. officials were seeking to ratchet up pressure on Damascus, and President Barack Obama used his annual speech to the U.N. General Assembly to urge the Security Council to sanction Syria. The following month, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-backed resolution threatening such sanctions, prompting Rice to accuse Russia and China of engaging in a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people." But the American role in the latest round of negotiations has been low key. While Rice and other American officials have counseled their European and Arab partners on strategy for confronting the Russians, they have played a more passive role in drafting the resolution, according to diplomats. "They are present," said one council diplomat. "But they are certainly not in the drivers seat." Still, expect a tough U.S. statement on Tuesday, including some barbed remarks about Russian obstructionism, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers the U.S. address to the council. "The Security Council must act and make clear to the Syrian regime that the world community views its actions as a threat to peace and security," Clinton said in a statement on Monday. "The regime has failed to meet its commitments to the Arab League to halt its acts of violence, withdraw its military forces from residential areas, allow journalists and monitors to operate freely and release prisoners arrested because of the current unrest."

The Euro Faction: Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s U.N. ambassador, and Gerard Araud, France’s U.N. envoy, have been the driving force behind the negotiations on the draft. Since the beginning of the crisis, they have pushed aggressively for the Security Council to increase pressure on Assad regime. In the latest round, they have cobbled together a fairly wide alliance of countries — including the United States, several Arab governments, and Turkey — in support of an Arab League plan for Syria’s political transition. Most of the group’s meetings have taken place at the British mission to the United Nations, and British and French diplomats have lead the drafting process. Germany’s U.N. ambassador Peter Wittig, meanwhile, has played an increasingly vocal role in pressing a tougher line in the council on Syria. It was Wittig who first proposed back in December that the Arab League brief the council on its diplomatic efforts to end the crisis. At the time, the initiative was dismissed even by Germany’s allies. "I wouldn’t say there was resistance," said one council diplomat. "But there was no appetite."

Don’t Tread on Me: Bashar Al Jaafari, Syria’s U.N. ambassador

President Assad’s U.N. envoy has been playing a wearying game of defense at the United Nations for nearly a year, making the case that Syria is a victim of a neo-colonial effort. Last week, Jaafari said the council’s European powers were behaving like Lawrence of Arabia, the late British military adventurer. "They think that Syria doesn’t exist," he said. "They deal with us as if we are a former colony that we should subjugate ourselves to their world. They are wrong and they will be disappointed." The United States and its European partners aims in Syria follow a pattern of disastrous meddling in the region, goes the Jaafari refrain, citing Western support for military invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, where NATO forces helped a local insurgency overthrow the Qaddafi government. "We are not Libya," he said.

The Not-So-Loyal Opposition: Burhan Ghalioun, representative of the Syrian National Council

The Paris-based leader of the exiled opposition Syrian National Council met with Security Council diplomats, including Russian representatives, to seek support for the Arab resolution. Ghalioum told reporters in New York on Monday that the prospects for a negotiated solution were dead, and that the only way to resolve the standoff was to pave the way for a transition to a government of national unity. "We have come to the United Nations to seek the support from the Security Council in preventing the country from falling into a failed state," he said. The Syrian National Council "calls on members of the Security Council to bear their full responsibility and vote for a definitive resolution condemning the crimes against humanity and recognizing the ineptitude of President Bashar al-Assad and asking him to step down." We "appeal to Russia, which has long historical ties with the Syrian people, to prevent the Assad regime from exploiting the Russian support in order to continue its oppression of the Syrian people. Any U.N. resolution that does not put an end to the rule of a president that has persistently ignored the will of people and persisted in abusing his power will not be a pragmatic solution and will not provide the proper environment for peaceful political negotiations, but rather that would allow Assad to continue his actions that would further lead us to the edge of civil war."

The Arabist for Assad: Mourad Medelci, Algeria’s foreign minister

The Arabs are anything but united on the course ahead. Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Sudan have resisted requesting a direct role for the U.N. Security Council in managing the crisis. Those governments have not participated in negotiations in New York on the new draft resolution endorsing the Arab plan. In a recent visit to the United Nations, Algerian foreign minister Mourad Medelci was sharply critical of the Syrian opposition, saying they had blocked Arab League monitors from entering neighborhoods they controlled and warning that their efforts to arm themselves could plunge the country into civil war. In contrast, Medelci credited the Syrian government with taking important steps to meet Arab League demands by releasing some political prisoners, withdrawing some heavy weapons from cities, and allowing some foreign media into the country. "The firing is not coming just from the government. The firing is coming from both sides." The feeling of the monitors, he noted, is that the "Syrian government is in a position of making more of an effort" to meet the Arab Leagues demands.

The Front Man: Mohammed Loulichki, Morocco’s U.N. ambassador

The lone Arab country on the Security Council, Morocco will introduce the resolution on behalf of the United States, Europe, and several Arab governments. A close ally of France and the United States, Morocco has taken a tougher line on Syria than its predecessor in the council, Lebanon, which has disassociated itself with the Arab League initiative. After distributing the draft to council members on Friday, Loulichki told reporters that he was prepared to begin negotiations with the Russians and other council members.

Now that you know the players, stay tuned tomorrow to see how this all plays out.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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