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Syrian Shadow Boxing

In a year of diplomatic duels between Moscow and Washington at the United Nations over Syria, is the Obama administration actually getting what it wants?

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

The resignation of Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League joint envoy to Syria on Aug. 2 effectively marks the end of U.N.-led diplomatic efforts to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to leave office peacefully, setting the stage for a new and deadlier phase of the Syrian crisis and heightening pressure on the United States and its allies to now step up military support for an armed opposition movement that they don’t know well or entirely trust. But it also raises questions as to what extent the United States ever believed the peace process would succeed and whether it misplayed its hand in attempting to convince Syria’s longstanding Russian ally to back a cessation of violence and Assad’s removal from power. In explaining his refusal to approve a Chapter VII resolution threatening sanctions against Syria and opening the door to additional unspecified measures, President Vladimir Putin told Annan in a closed-door meeting in Moscow: "We have been bitten by the West before, and we won’t let it happen again," according to an account by a diplomat present at the meeting.

From the earliest stages of the Syrian uprising, the Obama administration harbored reservations about the wisdom of confronting Russia at the U.N., anticipating that Moscow would block any meaningful action to pressure Assad. But with little stomach for intervening militarily in Syria, the administration ultimately backed a European- and Arab-led drive to pursue Assad’s negotiated departure through the United Nations while publicly denouncing Russia for protecting a dictator. Some observers charge, however, that the U.N. strategy ultimately provided diplomatic cover for an administration in Washington that feared getting embroiled in another Middle Eastern war.

"Washington’s primary goal has been to avoid getting dragged into a military operation in Syria," said Richard Gowan, an analyst at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation. "And to some extent the high-profile diplomatic clashes with the Russians let the Americans look tough and active but without them actually having to invest militarily. In a sense, the angry diplomacy of the Security Council has been an alibi for military inaction in Syria."

Indeed, the Obama administration has been widely criticized for proceeding too cautiously in its response to the Arab Spring, and even today it continues to resist calls to arm the opposition, limiting its support to humanitarian assistance, communications equipment, and intelligence, much of it channeled through Jordanian and Turkish agents. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed a "finding" authorizing the CIA to provide indirect military support for the rebels, but the administration has refused to provide lethal assistance, according to news reports this week.

It has been almost a year since Obama first called on Assad to "step aside," proclaiming "the future of Syria must be determined by its people." But his strategy for dislodging the Syrian leader — which hinged in large part on a U.N. diplomatic effort to push Assad out voluntarily — finally ran aground in the Security Council last month, leaving Assad clinging to power and raising the prospect that Syria’s fate will be settled on the battlefield. How did we get to this point?

The story begins not in Syria, where protests broke out in earnest in March 2011, but in Benghazi, Libya, where the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, was poised to deliver a decisive blow to the insurgency, raising fear among Arab and Western governments that thousands of civilians could be slaughtered in the process. "We are coming tonight," Qaddafi warned on state television as his forces prepared for their final assault. Buoyed by a call for action from Libya’s own diplomats, the United States and its European and Arab allies drove through a resolution that granted NATO sweeping powers to protect civilians from imminent threat of violence. Confronted with support from the Arab League and the African Union, China and Russia grudgingly allowed the resolution to pass, casting abstentions along with Brazil, Germany, and India. But Russia and other critics reacted angrily after NATO and a handful of Arab countries entered the conflict on behalf of the rebels, targeting the Qaddafi family’s homes from the air, while providing intelligence – and, in some cases — arms to the insurgents. Even South Africa, which had voted in favor of the resolution, complained that NATO had overreached.

The dispute would poison the atmosphere in the Security Council just at a time when it was seeking to forge an agreed response to the violence in Syria. Libya "did create some bad blood" which has spilled over into the deliberations on Syria, Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin told me back in January. "The worst way to achieve [your] goal in the Security Council is to mislead and manipulate…. We are going to have a tougher look at all of the sort of draft resolutions we are considering in the Security Council because we have to take now into account the scope of misinterpretation."

Indeed, Churkin has made good on that warning, vetoing three resolutions aimed at ratcheting up pressure on the Syrian regime, and insisting that Assad’s government must be at the center of any political deal on the country’s future. In a sense, it was Russia’s demand for a role for Assad that paved the way for the appointment in February of Kofi Annan, who flew to Damascus shortly after his selection to hammer out an agreed plan for a political transition that did not explicitly require Assad’s departure. But Annan was never able to convince Russia to apply sufficient pressure on Assad to implement his plan while Washington’s Gulf allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, continued to arm the rebels, undercutting their incentive to participate in talks.

The diplomatic impasse has shifted the center of gravity to Syria, where the future of the country is likely going to be settled on the battlefields of Homs and Aleppo. The United States, meanwhile, has challenged Moscow’s claim that it has put the brakes on U.N. action in the Security Council because it was mislead in Libya. They say that Russia’s diplomacy in the region is driven by its narrow national interests in supporting a key military ally and valued buyer of Russian arms.

"Using Libya as an excuse to do the wrong thing on Syria is completely disingenuous," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Foreign Policy earlier this year, saying the Russians knew perfectly well what NATO’s intention was when they backed the use of force in Libya. "Now, there may be some cynical folks who would say that perhaps the Russians and the Chinese were just trying to give the coalition enough rope to hang themselves and they’re frustrated that that wasn’t exactly the outcome."

But while the noose didn’t work in preventing the NATO and Arab League effort to topple Libya’s dictator, it is firmly around its neck now — suffocating any real action to bring peace or regime change to Syria, a country of much greater strategic importance to Moscow. And it has left the Obama administration looking feckless, impotent, and callous — or perhaps simply politically opportunistic.

But Moscow always saw American aims differently.

Russia has complained bitterly that the United States and its Western and Arab allies have manipulated the unrest in the region to expand their power and influence. Libya, in its view, was the first step in a wider geopolitical play for power that leads through Damascus to Tehran. Russian diplomats point to the role of Washington’s regional allies, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia — bitter regional rivals of Iran who have been arming the Syrian rebels — in undercutting Annan’s effort to get the rebels to the peace table. "A major geopolitical battle is being fought on the fields of Syria which has nothing to do with the interests of the Syrian people," Churkin declared after casting his country’s third Security Council veto earlier this month. "It’s all about Iran. It’s all about the geopolitical complexion of the Middle East."

While the Obama administration supports Assad’s removal from power it has dismissed Russian claims that its support for a Security Council resolution threatening sanctions against Assad is a pretext for justifying future military action, "Despite paranoid, if not disingenuous, claims by some to the contrary," Rice said, speaking of the Security Council resolution last month threatening Syria with sanctions, it "would in no way authorize nor even pave the way for foreign military intervention." Washington claims that Moscow’s protests over NATO action in Libya are nothing more than political theater, aimed at diverting attention from the Syrian regime’s crimes.

The end result is that Washington has been forced to look for tactical solutions outside the United Nations, but in a manner that lacks the urgency of last year’s military campaign against Qaddafi. The United States, backed by European and Arab allies, has imposed its own set of sanctions against Syria, and provided non-lethal assistance to the fractious opposition movement that emerged to challenge Assad. But ultimately the Obama administration gambled — although often with little conviction — that Moscow would recognize that Assad’s days were numbered and assent to a U.N. path that would at least grant Russia a role in shaping a post-Assad Syria.

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In the weeks before the latest Security Council vote , the United States dispatched a high-level team of negotiators to Moscow to carve out a deal. "It should be abundantly clear to those who support the Assad regime that their days are numbered," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement last month in Tokyo. At the United Nations, some Western diplomats were encouraged when Churkin assured them that Russia was "wedded" to the prospect of a Syria without Assad, council diplomats told me.

Those expectations were shattered in July, as Russia, backed by China, vetoed its third resolution in nearly 10 months aimed at threatening sanctions against Syria, effectively slamming the door on Annan’s diplomatic effort. Now, the U.N. observer mission that was sent to Syria in April to monitor a cease-fire that never stuck has pulled out half of its people, a first step toward the likely shutdown of the mission in the coming weeks. "It pains me to say, but we are not on track for peace," Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the former head of the mission, said in a farewell press conference in Damascus.

The Obama administration’s reliance on the U.N. has harmed its standing within Syria — where the opposition once looked to Washington with hope that it would act as forcefully as it did in Libya. In July 2011, U.S. ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford was greeted with flowers and olive branches when he traveled to Hama to show support for peaceful anti-government protesters. The State Department has since withdrawn Ford from Damascus, citing threats against his life. Today, some in the opposition accuse the United States of abandoning Syrians.

Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, said that the Obama administration’s standing in Syria has plummeted as the U.N. track has failed to lessen the government’s brutality or carve a path toward a new government.

"Everyone is looking for the Americans to take leadership but the Americans have decided to hide behind the Russian and the Chinese veto," Ziadeh said, noting that the rebels need anti-aircraft weapons, not U.N. resolutions, to get Assad out. The U.N., he added, is "irrelevant, far away from the realities on the ground in Syria."

Syrians, he added, are now "turning against the West and the Americans," he said. The "10 to 20 [satellite] phones" and other forms of non-lethal support were clearly inadequate. "We did not get anything from them," he said. Ziadeh was particularly indignant that on July 23, the day Russia and China vetoed a second Security Council resolution on Syria, Obama delivered a campaign address in West Palm Beach, Florida, in which he cited the violence in Syria to highlight the need to protect Israelis.

For the United States, the U.N. has at best been a double-edged sword. Despite the limits of action in the Security Council, the U.N. has provided Washington and its European and Arab allies with an effective forum for deepening Syria’s diplomatic isolation. They have mustered overwhelming support for resolutions denouncing Syria’s conduct in the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly, something that would have been unthinkable in the days before the Arab Spring. Last August, the U.N. Security Council supported a presidential statement that condemned Syria. A month later, President Obama addressed the General Assembly: "Now is the time for the United Nations Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime, and to stand with the Syrian people," he said.

But the United States never appeared committed to the sanctions push, harboring deep reservations about the wisdom of turning to the U.N. for help in nudging Assad from power. It was Britain and France, without the backing of the United States, that first pressed for a tougher reaction from the Security Council last fall. Ambassador Rice feared the European approach would backfire and lead to a veto, presenting Assad with a diplomatic victory at Turtle Bay, U.S. and U.N. diplomats told me at the time.

In the end, Rice was proven right. Not only did Russia and China block council action with a double veto last October, but Brazil, India, Lebanon, and South Africa abstained, leaving the West looking weak. Following the failed vote, the Syrians couldn’t refrain from gloating: Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, smiled broadly before the Security Council and thanked the "voices of wisdom" for blocking a Western campaign of military meddling that was "doomed to failure."

The West’s poor showing in the council prompted a diplomatic effort by the Europeans to win over the abstainers and China, which was facing intense criticism from Arab governments, with the goal of forcing an isolated Russia to buckle. U.S. and Arab leaders warned Russia that its relations with Arab governments would be irreparably harmed by its action. But Moscow was unmoved, arguing that it was the West’s support for the armed opposition that was thwarting efforts to negotiate a political settlement. In February 2012, the European powers, buoyed by an Arab League statement requesting council action and a brutal military assault on Homs, pressed for a second Security Council resolution. Again, the United States supported the effort, but they still allowed the Europeans to take the lead. "They are present," one council diplomat said of the American role in the negotiations, "but they are not in the driver’s seat."

The Western campaign did yield a few victories: India and South Africa, two of the council’s four previous abstainers, reversed their stance (the other two, Brazil and Lebanon, had left the council by that time), leaving China and Russia looking increasingly isolated on Syria. But ultimately it was not enough to prevent Russia and China from blocking the resolution and setting off a round of angry recriminations. "The United States is disgusted" by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, Rice told the council after the vote. "A couple of members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant."

Russia’s commitment to blocking sanctions in the Security Council made it easy to demonize, but it also ensured Moscow — and the United Nations — would be central to any future agreement, or lack thereof. Thus, when former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was appointed special envoy to Syria, the menu of potential options had already been severely limited — he would be held hostage by the precedent of having gone to the Security Council twice before and the necessity of Russian consent. As a result, Annan was forced to reframe the debate in Western and Arab capitals from ousting Assad to engaging him in a political deal.

The resulting plan contained nothing that was objectionable to the Russians. Notably, it excluded a proposal — initially put forward by the Arab League and endorsed by the council’s Western powers — that would have required President Assad yield power to a transitional government. More importantly, it ensured that Assad would play a central role in any political deal on the future of the country. The plan, however, did impose demands on the embattled president, by requiring that the Syrian government stop using heavy weapons in urban areas, release all political prisoners, end human rights abuses, and guarantee the right to peaceful protest. The U.N. Security Council moved to endorse the plan and assembled a mission of some 300 U.N. observers to enforce it. But many governments, particularly the United States, never truly believed it had a chance of success.

When the U.N. deployed monitors in late April, Rice actually said that "no one should assume that the United States will agree to renew this mission at the end of 90 days," after casting her vote to create the new mission. "If there is not a sustained cessation of violence, full freedom of movement for U.N. personnel and rapid meaningful progress on all other aspects of the six-point plan, then we must all conclude that this mission has run its course." And that was before the mission even put a single blue-helmet on the ground.

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In July, Rice declared the U.N. track effectively dead, saying that the blue helmets would likely use its final month in Syria to prepare a safe and orderly withdrawal. The effort to confront Assad, meanwhile, would move outside the United Nations. "The U.S. approach will increasingly be to focus our efforts not so much in this council, which has hit a substantive dead end, but also to strengthen and intensify our work with other countries outside the Security Council," she said.

Without a credible diplomatic process in place, the pressure for outside military intervention is likely to grow, making it ever more difficult for the United States not to get involved. But with the U.S. presidential election looming, and Syria ranking low on the radar screen of American voters, it seems unlikely that the administration is set for a major push in the months ahead to resolve the crisis. For now, the Obama administration has insisted that these efforts should not include lethal U.S. military support for the opposition, which U.S. political and intelligence officials are weary of arming, citing a lack of clarity about their long-term goals and uncertainty about the role of extremists groups, including al Qaeda, in the armed effort to overthrow Assad.

As for Russia, Moscow may have won a tactical victory in the United Nations, buying time for President Assad and maintaining political pressure on the rebels’ sponsors to limit the scale of their military support. But they are not winning on the ground, where the armed opposition’s growing military strength seems to be posing an increasingly lethal threat to Assad’s survival. Indeed, the bloody standoff may portend a protracted conflict that not only harms American and Russian interests in Syria, dealing a blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to reset relations with Moscow, but which may condemn Syrians and their neighbors to a long and bloody war.

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