With Syria, Don’t Repeat Yemen Mistake
In a statement on Monday, Clinton vehemently condemned the regime’s violent attacks on opposition protesters and pledged to “send a clear message of support to the Syrian people: we stand with you.” This is the right message, but we must look a bit more closely at the details. What exactly is in the draft resolution that the Security Council is considering?
The resolution proposes a deal backed by the Arab League that is similar to the deal engineered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to resolve the conflict in Yemen that was ultimately signed—after months of protracted stalling—last November. Like the Yemeni agreement, the Arab League deal calls on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to step aside and delegate power to his deputy, Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, to oversee a political transition. Within two months a national unity government would be established, under the leadership of a consensus figure, who would then hold democratic elections within six months. The plan also indicates that the unity government should reform the Syrian security forces and draft a new constitution, which would be approved by referendum. The current UN resolution being considered also condemns the use of violence by the Syrian government and calls for all countries to stop the flow of weapons into Syria, but stops short of imposing an arms embargo.
This appears to be a reasonable solution, but if the Yemeni context serves as an example, then there are some warning signs. The deal that was ultimately signed by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the opposition parties has some serious flaws that will plague attempts toward democratic transition. First and foremost, the deal granted President Saleh—and all his family and cohorts—immunity from prosecution in return for agreeing to leave the presidency. After nearly a year of violent conflict, with government-backed troops and snipers killing hundreds of peaceful demonstrators throughout the country, this blanket immunity clause is proving to be divisive and potentially catastrophic. Second, the deal was agreed upon by a coalition of Yemeni opposition parties, known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), but did not include or take into consideration other important groups with legitimate grievances, such as the southern secessionists, the Houthi rebels in the north, and independent youth activists not aligned with the opposition parties.
The fact that the Arab League has taken the initiative to stand up to Syria’s despotic regime is something that the international community should embrace. The typically sclerotic organization has taken a forceful stance regarding Al Assad’s rampage and has clearly indicated that the government’s repressive and violent behavior is no longer acceptable. While the motivations for this newfound backbone could (and should) be evaluated, the US and the international community should support such moves and encourage the regional body to robustly engage in mediating conflicts, defending basic human rights of its citizens, and fostering integration. However, the Arab League’s Yemen-scenario proposal to end the bloodbath in Syria may not be the best answer. While the two countries are quite different, the need to address important sectarian divisions and ensure that crimes committed are brought to justice are parallel concerns. Removing the head of the snake isn’t sufficient in either case.
The other real problem with UN resolution and the Arab League deal—as is currently written—is that it will not likely get backing from Russia. Last October, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed resolution that would have condemned the Syrian government's crackdown on the uprising, and Russia has made it exceedingly clear that it will continue to oppose similar efforts or initiatives to levy additional economic sanctions against Syria. If Russia’s main concern is a repeat of Libya, where it felt duped into supporting the no-fly zone that ultimately led to the demise of the Libyan regime, then Western nations must continue to assure Russia that a similar scenario will not play out in Syria.
The US and its allies should continue to negotiate this week at the Security Council and press Russia and China to at least abstain, if not support, a resolution condemning the Syrian government and advocating for a transitional government that does not include Al Assad. Any UN resolution, however, should also take into consideration the long-term interests of the Syrian people and set in place a viable framework for a transition that has the support of key constituent groups and does not let the perpetrators of violent crimes walk free. Getting rid of a corrupt and brutal leader is essential, but just one piece of a very complicated puzzle. The implementation of the GCC deal is unfolding daily in Yemen and its long-term viability is severely hampered. The UN should avoid the same pitfalls in any Syria resolution.
Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.