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Transatlantic Voices

West's inertia exacerbates Syrian impasse

As Syria slides ever deeper into a spiral of violence, the West is struggling to come up with a coherent political plan that negates the need for using force, writes Nathalie Tocci for DW's Transatlantic Voices column.

Nathalie Tocci is deputy director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome.

As violence rages in Syria, the West is paralyzed by a public discourse centered around the necessity of using force and a regional and international reality that makes such option politically untenable. Caught in between a rock and a hard place, the space for debating seriously a political way out of the crisis risks shrinking into oblivion

When faced by an unfolding regional or international crisis, notably one in which mass violence is perpetrated, the knee-jerk reaction in Europe and above all in the United States boils down to the adequacy and modality of using force. Bolstered by the liberal norms of human security and responsibility to protect (R2P), to intervene or not to intervene becomes the crucial question.

Most recently, this happened in the case of the Libyan uprising, when, within days of the eruption of violence, the international debate quickly converged on the question of whether and above all how to intervene militarily to stop the impending massacre in Benghazi. The same is true in the case of Syria, where the international tug-of-war between the West and Russia-China revolves around the use of force, first and foremost to stop the killing and, inevitably following from this, forcing the transition of power, that is triggering regime change in Damascus.

The fact that within weeks of the Syrian uprising, the West explicitly called for Assad to step down nakedly revealed what the ultimate end of an intervention in Syria would be. True, Libya is not Syria. In the case of Syria, critical Russian economic and military interests are at stake. Russia is also particularly sensitive to arguments about the unwieldiness of the Syrian opposition and the alleged infiltration of Qaedist elements in it. Syria has also become the prime terrain in which Moscow is flexing its international muscle beyond its proverbial near abroad.

Libyan precedent

But when gauging the Russian and more broadly the international concern about an intervention, the Libyan precedent should not be discounted either. Representing the first military intervention explicitly justified with the R2P doctrine, the case of Libya has uncovered two important weaknesses of the doctrine, which its critics in the BRICS and the Global South are quick to point to. First is the imperative of the ‘responsibility while protecting'. In the case of Libya, NATO's visible mission creep from R2P to the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and, more seriously, Qatar's explicit violation of the UN mandate by sending boots on the ground are evident cases in point. Second is the ‘responsibility after protecting', that is, avoiding the irresistible temptation to run once the immediate - albeit implicit - goal of regime change is accomplished.

Nathalie Tocci

Nathalie Tocci

Again in Libya, NATO's refusal - to date - to open an investigation on the casualties of the intervention and the broader international pull-out from the country whose transition is anything but assured cast a dark shadow over the entire mission. In the case of Syria, these concerns would be even more pronounced. The Syrian conflict is already far bloodier than the Libyan one ever was. Casualties resulting from a military solution in different shapes and forms - no fly zones, no kill zones, safe corridors, arming the opposition - would most likely be much higher. In view of the disgruntled opposition, disunited abroad and lacking solid links with fighters and protesters on the ground, a post-Assad situation looks even more complex than the one currently unfolding in Libya, away from the international limelight.

Lack of discussion

Because of the resulting international lack of consensus over a military solution, the UN has converged on the Annan Plan, centred on the immediate imposition of a UN-monitored cease-fire and delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population. But the Annan Plan, alone, does not represent a political way out of the crisis. Not because of its inherent faultiness, but rather because it  is the mere product of international discord, rather than the result of a concerted and committed agreement over the political way forward.

To date, in fact, there has been no serious discussion of what a political solution to the crisis may look like. Sanctions are in place and are being progressively tightened. Diplomatic actions - such as the recent decision by the United States, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia and Bulgaria in response to the Houla massacre - are also, belatedly, being taken. US President Obama has recently hinted at the ‘Yemeni option,' that is, a negotiated exit of the president while leaving much of his regime in place. But these measures and suggestions are not the product of a concerted international diplomatic strategy to put an end to violence and assist a political transition in the country.

Until and unless UN Security Council members alongside major regional powers including both Turkey and the Gulf as well as Iran agree to sit around the table and convene representatives of the Syrian regime and the opposition, banging heads together until a way out is found, we will continue to watch motionless while entrapped in endless discord over an unfeasible military solution to the conflict.

Editor: Rob Mudge

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