Arab League risks Russian wrath by approaching West over Syria | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 18.11.2011
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Arab League risks Russian wrath by approaching West over Syria

The Arab League has called on the West to head a Syrian contact group to coordinate policy and decide on any future action against Syria, with Britain and France the Arabs' preferred leaders - much to Russia's distaste.

France's President Sarkozy and Britain's prime minister Cameron in Tripoli, Libya

Could Cameron and Sarkozy intervene in Syria as in Libya?

Britain and France have been approached by senior Arab League officials about taking the lead in a Libya-style contact group which would coordinate the next phases of action against President Bashar al-Assad, and plan for what many regard as his inevitable departure from power.

It is widely believed that the approach to Britain and France has considerable support within the Arab League with many states feeling that the Europeans' proximity to the Middle East and their greater understanding of its complexities would make them better leaders of such a contact group than the United States. King Abdullah of Jordan presented the case to British Prime Minister David Cameron during talks on Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe appeared to take France's first steps toward assuming a leadership position by calling on the UN Security Council to take action against Syria after meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, on Friday.

One senior Arab diplomatic source told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper on Friday that Syria's neighbors held too many different views to coordinate action effectively and that the West had to take the lead in formulating a robust international response should Syria collapse. "Leaving it all up to us, you are going to get a lot of shenanigans," the source is quoted as saying. "If you need a team captain on this you have got to go to the West."

However such a move would be risky and controversial. "The Arab League would be taking a risk if it tries to involve Britain and France in any contact group, particularly after their high-profile role in initiating regime change in Libya," Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East and North Africa expert at the London School of Economics, told Deutsche Welle.

No desire for military intervention - so far

While talk of a contact group may set nerves jangling in the region, especially as the Libyan version eventually led to NATO military intervention under a UN mandate with Arab political support, there appears to be little desire among Arab or Western states to push for any military involvement - at least at this stage.

A Royal Air Force Typhoon

A Libya-style intervention for Syria would be less palatable

"The intervention in Libya proved controversial in the Arab world as the limited initial UN mandate was far exceeded by NATO's subsequent intervention," Ulrichsen said. "This placed its Arab supporters in a difficult position although subsequent developments allowed Qatar and the UAE to position themselves to play a major role in post-conflict reconstruction and recovery."

Should the Syrian regime escalate its response by using air power against its own people, calls for a Libya-style no-fly zone to protect civilians may reach fever pitch among Arab nations. "And who would enforce a no-fly zone? It would be the UN or NATO," the senior Arab diplomatic source was quoted as saying by the Telegraph.

Catalyst for a wider conflict?

Any military intervention in Syria could act as a catalyst for a wider conflagration in a volatile region already primed to explode, with al-Assad's main ally Iran under increased pressure from the West over its nuclear program and under threat from an Israeli administration which appears to be preparing to take matters into its own hands.

Not only would Western-led intervention in a major Arab state threaten to plunge the Middle East into a wider regional conflict, it would also ratchet up the tensions between the West and Syria's powerful allies in Russia.

Russia, a long-term supporter of the Syrian regime and one which maintains a naval base in the country, has already accused Western countries of inciting opposition to al-Assad's rule, as well as condemning the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria. Moscow, in tandem with China, also blocked a UN Security Council motion last month to bring sanctions against Syria.

Moscow claims foreign interference

This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that the increase of pressure on Damascus and the speeding up of escalations in Syria was being orchestrated by certain external forces to justify future military intervention against the al-Assad regime.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Lavrov warned of planning military intevention in ally Syria

Lavrov said that, while all efforts were made by the West to achieve a peaceful settlement when a similar uprising threatened stability in Yemen, no such efforts were made in Libya and none were being pursued in Syria. In fact, he added, rather than pushing for a peaceful resolution, neighboring countries were supplying the Syrian opposition with weapons - a situation which Lavrov said could lead to a large-scale civil war.

At the same time, however, Russia announced that it would not be imposing any restrictions on its own supply of arms to Syria and that Moscow would fulfill its obligations under the military contracts signed with Damascus.

Russia fully supported the rights of the Syrian demonstrators to call for change, Lavrov said, but he claimed that those among them who bear arms have no desire for democracy

"The key for Russia is stability in Syria and the guarantee that their military presence in the country can continue, with or without Assad," Jana Kobzova, a Russia expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.

According to Kobzova the Arab League's latest moves have triggered a rethink in Moscow. "While Moscow is unlikely to agree to a foreign intervention, if the regional players including the Arab League take further actions, Russia is unlikely to go actively against that. I wouldn't expect much opposition beyond rhetoric, partly because Russia is neither the key nor the only player in the region - and Moscow realizes this."

Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported on Friday that Syria had given permission for Russian warships to enter Syrian waters, and suggested that the Russian ships could act as a deterrent to any attempted Western-backed military intervention in Syria.

Jana Kobzova believes that any muscle-flexing or belligerent opposition by Russia in the face of possible Western interference in Syria would have to be re-thought if the pressure to act in Syria came from the Arab world.

"Russia is much more comfortable opposing Western-led interventions than those proposed by regional players; in this respect, the actions of the Arab League may make it more difficult for Moscow to oppose putting more pressure on Assad," she said.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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