Gulf Arab countries, led by Qatar’s Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, have stepped up their criticism of the Syrian regime and recalled their observers from the Arab League mission to Syria. It is expected that they would favour a United Nations resolution advocating military intervention. But don’t expect much to transpire. As the death toll continues to rise above 5,000 Syrian lives, it is time to come to terms with the likelihood of a protracted stalemate. Unlike the dramatic and rapid overthrow of other Arab regimes, the Syrian impasse will continue as suspicions and divisions among world powers produce continued inaction.
Russian and Chinese support for the Syrian regime will ensure two powerful Security Council vetoes to any resolution calling for armed intervention and toughened economic sanctions. Both believe that they were duped last year by western and NATO parties in the implementation of UN resolution 1973, which was meant to defend Libyan civilians but led to the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime. These two rising economic powers are adamant about putting western states in their place. They refuse to see the UN used as a vehicle to legitimize U.S. and European foreign policy interests.
The decision on Syria is closely related to that on Iran. As western governments push for a tougher UN sanctions regime for an alleged nuclear weapons program, the Russians and Chinese will refuse to go along and jeopardize their military and economic ties with Iran.
Moreover, these two states view proposed UN resolutions on Syria and Iran as tactics having a common western goal: to produce regime change throughout the region.
At the same time, Russian and Chinese support for the Syrians complements their own perverse narrative on the root cause of domestic opposition on the streets of Moscow and Tibet: “Western powers are funneling ideas and money to insurgent movements, leading to foreign sponsored terrorism and protests.”
This all-too-familiar-line is repeated continuously by Syria’s Bashar Assad. Support for protestors’ rights to demonstrate is interpreted as interference in the sovereignty of these countries.
Due to the economic crisis, western powers have been weakened and both the Russians and the Chinese perceive this. Fiscal pressures in the United States and Europe mean that there will be little enthusiasm for another war. Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, two of the largest contributors to NATO forces, face stiff re-election campaigns in 2012, and their claims of foreign policy success have not placated domestic criticism of their economic policies.
Similarly, the Russians and the Chinese are also undergoing leadership changes this year and both presidents in-waiting, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, are hardliners who will refuse to compromise with western interests at the UN.
As for the Arab Gulf countries that are championing the case against Assad at the UN, they are small sheikdoms that don’t have armies to speak of. Qatar has an army of 11,000, 70 per cent of it manned by non-Qataris. And when the Bahrainis crushed their own Arab Spring uprisings last year, the Gulf countries needed to hire foreign mercenaries to fill the ranks of Saudi forces to get the job done. Arab countries that have larger armies — Egypt, Iraq and Libya — are not the least bit interested in helping the Syrian opposition when their own regime changes have yet to bare the fruits of success.
Increasingly, elements of the Syrian opposition are calling on the international community to intervene. The Gulf Arab states and western governments may be sympathetic to the Syrian plight. But, unfortunately, the Syrian tragedy will continue as the perfect storm of political and military inaction prevails. The people of Hama, Deraa, Homs and Idlib will see this simply as abandonment and not as a symptom of the shift in global economic and political power from the West to the rest.
Bessma Momani is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, and at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.