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Feb. 16 (Bloomberg) -- The United Nations will show more gum than teeth today with a vote on a non-binding resolution denouncing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that shows the world body’s inability to stem the bloodshed.
Arab and Western diplomats turned to the 193-member assembly to deliver a condemnation of Assad that lacks bite after a binding measure prodding him to step aside was blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes Feb. 4 in the Security Council, the UN’s decision-making body. A two-thirds majority in favor of today’s resolution would highlight Assad’s growing isolation.
With immediate options at the UN exhausted, Western and Arab nations are organizing a “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia next week to search for measures -- short of military intervention -- to shift the balance against Assad and provide a measure of support for his opponents. A potentially divisive issue is whether some Arab nations may seek to arm the opposition.
“There is a lot at stake and, given its strategic importance, it will be very hard for regional countries to keep their hands off Syria,” Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview.
The UN has estimated that more than 5,400 people had been killed in Syria through last year, while Saudi Arabia says the death toll is at least 7,000.
In Vienna yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his nation would support a UN role in Syrian peacekeeping if outside intervention isn’t allowed and the opposition agrees to a cease-fire.
While Lavrov said dialogue with the opposition could lead to Assad’s departure from power, Syrian forces stepped up their assault even as Assad called yesterday for a constitutional referendum on Feb. 26. The draft document, published on the Syrian Arab News Agency’s website, promised “political pluralism” and democratic elections, and would limit presidents to two seven-year terms.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the proposal “laughable” and said “promises of reforms have usually been followed by an increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this regime since the beginning of the peaceful demonstrations.”
Stung by the failure in the UN Security Council, which alone can authorize sanctions and military intervention, the 22- member Arab League is struggling to influence the outcome in Syria. It has already imposed economic sanctions on the Assad regime. Assad has rejected all of the resolutions put forward by Arab leaders.
The Tunis gathering may attract representatives from as many as 90 nations, including many foreign ministers. It may highlight anew the dilemmas the international community faces in trying to confront Syria, including whether to arm Assad’s opposition.
The Arab League resolution that will go before the UN General Assembly calls for providing the opposition with “all forms of political and material support.”
Groups inside Syria that operate loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army consist of local armed groups with only limited contact with armed rebels in neighboring areas.
The Gulf States, led by the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are the most likely candidates to supply the opposition with the means to buy weapons, perhaps covertly. Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani proposed on Feb. 12 the deployment of Arab troops to Syria.
Asked about the possibility that Arab states might arm Syrian rebels, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Feb. 14 that the U.S. wants instead to see a peaceful democratic transition.
‘Not Much’ Possible
“What in practice can they do?” said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, commenting on the “Friends” meeting. “Not much.”
Muasher, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group, said that “in the absence of military intervention, people are going to come up with all sorts of options, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t, I’m just cautioning not to have high expectations.”
The U.S. hopes the Tunis meeting will help coordinate increased political pressure on Assad to accept the Arab League’s plan for him to step aside, Nuland said.
The U.S. wants to tighten economic sanctions on Syria in order to “to dry up the money fueling its war machine,” she said. Finding a way to get humanitarian aid to Syrians will be high on the agenda, as will strengthening and unifying the opposition, she said.
State Department officials say privately that that the “Friends” group’s ability to make concrete progress on the ground depends on Turkey’s willingness to create humanitarian aid corridors along its border with Syria. Such areas could eventually become staging grounds for opposition resistance. The Turkish newspaper Milliyet reported Feb. 14 that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has proposed creating such a corridor for aid.
The State Department officials, who weren’t authorized to speak on the record, said the first “Friends” meeting will, at best, provide an opportunity to create common ground.
The “Friends of Syria” is modeled on the informal coalition of nations that sprung up to rally behind the opposition to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
Unlike the rebels in Libya, which seized control of the eastern parts of country and set up an alternative capital in Benghazi, the armed opposition to Assad hasn’t been as successful against the regime’s security forces and the political opposition is still coalescing. The main umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, consists of exiled dissidents who have been out of the country for decades.
“They don’t all know each other,” Nuland said Feb. 14 of the various opposition groups. “Some of those connections have been difficult to make, so we are working with all of them about strengthening their common view.”
In a sign of growing frustration, the Arab League said Feb. 13 it would return to the Security Council, this time to appeal for a peacekeeping force. Sending UN peacekeepers requires the approval of the host country and a peace to keep. With neither of those conditions -- and Russia threatening to use its veto for a third time -- the Arab League effort can’t succeed.
The request remains significant as the Arab League has now “crossed one of its traditional red lines and paved the way for a possible non-Arab intervention into a fellow Arab state,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
--With assistance from Massoud Derhally in Beirut and Jonathan Tirone in Vienna. Editors: Terry Atlas, Larry Liebert
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