Terms of Engagement

The Cynics at the Gates

The world is more prepared to stop atrocities than ever before, but it is still unwilling -- or unable -- to actually bring those atrocities to an end.

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Something big has happened in international diplomacy: The Arab League, a body which until just the other day defended the sovereignty of its members at all costs, is demanding that a skittish U.N. Security Council take forceful action to stop atrocities committed by Syria, one of its own members. The league’s call last year for a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya felt like an aberration, because Muammar al-Qaddafi had placed himself so far beyond the pale among his own neighbors. But Syria is a pillar of the organization, as central as France is to the EU. And so the spectacle of an Arab country — Morocco — introducing an Arab resolution to the Security Council earlier this week demanding that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad leave office was astonishing.

Arab authorship radically changes the politics surrounding the question of international action. Think, by contrast, of Darfur, where the United States and several European allies on the Security Council pushed resolutions threatening sanctions against Sudan for its campaign of mass killing and expulsion. Arab leaders defended their brother in Khartoum, President Omar al-Bashir, while the African Union repelled outside interference with its calls for "African solutions to African problems." Much the same happened in the face of international outrage against the regimes in Zimbabwe and Myanmar. The perpetrator’s neighbors thus twist legitimate calls for action into a campaign of Western neo-colonialism, and reduce the universal principles behind norms like "the responsibility to protect" into a hobby-horse of Western elites.

China took the lead defending Sudan in the Security Council starting in 2004. Whatever pressure China had to ensure from Western governments and public opinion, it suffered no consequences at all in Africa, the Middle East, or throughout the developing world. And for years, Bashir was thus able to virtually dictate the terms of the international effort to stop his own killing spree, with a toothless peacekeeping force fielded by an overwhelmed and under-financed African Union. "African solutions to African problems" not only emboldened China, it also undermined the already shaky alliance seeking to stop Bashir. Who wants to stand up for a Western solution to Africa’s problems? And so the United States, Britain, and others often proved quite willing to dump the problem in Africa’s lap.

By all rights we should be in that place again, but somehow we’re not. Russia, which is performing the same services for Syria that China did for Sudan, is negotiating not only with the Western powers but with representatives of Morocco, Qatar, and the Arab League. Russia can not disguise its support for Syria as anti-neo-colonialism (even though it also has the support of India, long-time stalwart of the Non-Aligned Movement) The plain truth is that, just as China depended on Sudan as an oil supplier, Russia views Syria as a major client for its arms-export industry; and both China and Russia fear that any effort by the Security Council to stop atrocities could serve as a precedent for similar interventions in Chechnya, or Tibet. Moscow has hardly folded: by threatening a veto, it has already forced the resolution’s backers to strip out any explicit reference to Assad’s departure and has removed passages calling for an arms embargo and support for sanctions. But after blocking any Security Council action on Syria for months, Russia is now actively negotiating for language it can live with. Diplomats say that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov may reach an agreement when they meet in Munich on Saturday.

The resolution, whatever form it takes, puts the Arab League in the lead. A senior State Department official I spoke to pointed out that — while in the case of Libya the Arab League had, in effect, authorized the West to act on its behalf — in the case of Syria it has asked the council to endorse an Arab bid to resolve the problem. "That’s important," he said, "and it’s new." It may be possible to speak of an "Arab solution to an Arab problem" without a cynical smirk.

The Arab League is not alone in its new spirit of activism: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), played a leading role in the campaign to depose Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Cote D’Ivoire, after he provoked a civil war rather than accept the results of an election he had lost. The heavy lifting in that operation was done by the U.N. and France; but, as in Libya, the regional body provided indispensable legitimacy for the international community. Sovereignty has begun to lose its magic even among the de-colonized nations which most zealously guard the principle. But Arab leaders also live in a new world. The Arab street has turned sharply against Assad; and the era when Arab leaders could afford to ignore public opinion is over. In that regard, the new tone of the Arab League is one of the early benefits of the Arab Spring.

Russia may choose to compromise rather than put itself on the wrong side of history. That would be encouraging. But, of course, a win for international diplomacy means nothing if Assad continues to kill unarmed civilians, or if Syria spirals into a yet more monstrous civil war. The resolution’s backers hope that once Assad’s supporters in the military and the business community see that they don’t have to decide, as Assad insists they do, between murderous violence and utter chaos, but can instead choose what the resolution calls "an inclusive Syrian-led political process" to replace him, they will abandon the dictator. That’s a plausible hypothesis. But if Assad concludes that he still has Russia in his corner — along with China, Iran, and Hezbollah — he may well believe that he can tough it out. And if Russia continues to deliver weaponry, he may retain the means to do so.

What then? The answer, alas, is: nothing. There has been a great deal of debate over the question of military intervention in Syria. An English think tank focused on Syria has even produced an assessment, mostly positive, of the case for establishing a "safe haven," like Benghazi in Libya, where civilians would be protected from attack and the opposition could safely organize. But it’s not going to happen. Several months ago, French foreign minister Alain Juppe mooted the idea of a "humanitarian corridor," in which foreign troops would provide protection for aid agencies giving humanitarian assistance to civilians in Syria. But the idea got no support, and has since been dropped. One Western diplomat said to me, "Any possibility of military action is completely discarded, and considered as impossible." Could that change? One Obama administration official suggested that if Syrian troops were stupid enough to chase rebel soldiers across the border into Turkey, the Turks could not only answer with force but invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty requiring the organization to respond to an attack on a member. That is, he said, a very remote scenario. And even many NATO members would be reluctant to act without Security Council authorization, which Russia would never grant.

So the news is not all that good. The world is more prepared to act to stop atrocities than it was just a short while ago, but it is still unwilling, or perhaps unable, to actually bring those atrocities to an end. Russia and India are still prepared to make the grotesquely cynical argument that the events in Syria constitute a civil war between two sides equally at fault, rather than a murderous rampage which has, after long months, provoked some civilians to take up arms and some soldiers to defect. Advocates of forceful action still have more words than deeds at their disposal. Juppe admonished the Security Council earlier this week that its silence, in the face of Syria’s "crimes against humanity," was "shameful." He repeated this word several times, lest anyone have failed to hear his outrage. But France has no Plan B to offer beyond what may turn out to be a fairly wan Security Council resolution. That does, actually, put one in mind of the debates over Darfur.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice. The arc is almost imperceptible. But I still believe it’s bending that way.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola