Syria's leader Bashir al-Assad and his regime will not give up any time soon, says Jan Techau, the Director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. He believes that for the moment the West is stuck.
Jan Techau is the Director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Brussels-based think tank.
DW: Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab envoy, wants to bring together key powers to put pressure on Assad in Syria and hopes that Iran would be part of a so-called Syria Contact Group. Why is such a group necessary when we already have France's Group of the Friends of Syria, which is scheduled to meet on July 6th for the third time?
Jan Techau: It's because nothing works. When nothing works and when nothing seems to impress the Assad regime, new ideas are being circulated. It's a sign of how desperate everybody is. This is only the latest attempt of reinvigorating diplomacy. It's a trial and error process very clearly. Since everybody is very eager to avoid the military option at this point they're all trying out new tricks in the hat diplomatically.
France and Britain - amongst others - have already said explicitly they are not against such a new group, but they rule out Iran being a part of it.
That makes sense because Iran will not be a constructive player in this. Iran is fuelling the conflict by supporting Assad and by being an active player on the ground. So I can understand their position. My feeling is that you'd just have another veto player in the equation. While it makes sense to bring regional players in you also have to look at what these regional players can bring to the table, and Iran can't bring an awful lot to the table - quite on the contrary. They have every interest in stifling the diplomatic process and keeping it on hold and that's what everybody fears.
But what diplomatic advantages would this new group bring to a possible solution of the Syria conflict?
Jan Techau, Director of Carnegie Europe
I think the aim is to show Assad that we're talking to his allies. We're trying to find out whether Iran and others who support him would actually be interested in resolving this issue diplomatically. If they can be convinced to drop Assad then this would be hugely dangerous for Assad and his regime. It's an attempt to encircle Assad. In my opinion it's a futile attempt because Iran is not going to waver, it will only feel emboldened by being included in a diplomatic solution to take an even more aggressive stance on this.
Germany - amongst others - has been calling on Russia to increase the pressure on Damascus, but has been failing. Moscow has just recently indicated again that it would veto a possible UN Security Council resolution that would open the door for military action. Is there any progress going on there?
Not that I know. Russia has just recently blocked a UN resolution that asked for stronger sanctions. We all know that Russia has strategic interest in the region. Syria is a long-term ally, its only geopolitical ally really in the region. Plus, Russia fears the hollowing out of the entire idea of state sovereignty; they're hiding behind the principle of non-interference and classic international law. The question is what if the situation gets so much out of hand that being an advocate of Syria becomes very costly? Obviously Russia doesn't feel that this is the case yet, and so they keep the position as it is, i.e. they support Assad. So far, the international community is interested, but not overly interested in the situation in Syria. Once being associated with Assad becomes a real image problem for Russia they might change their stance, but I have no idea whether that's going to happen or not.
What are your expectations for the July 6 Friends of Syria meeting that France has called?
The French President might try and get more support for a military intervention. The big question there is: would those who are in favor of it also do it without a UN Security Council mandate? Then it would get dangerous and Assad would feel more pressure. Then certainly, also China's and Russia's positions would stiffen up a little because they don't want an intervention. But we haven't reached that point yet. Maybe the Friends of Syria meeting will tell us more about whether two or three or more countries would even go for it without a Security Council mandate. That would change the entire situation dramatically.
Last year's intervention in Libya virtually happened overnight, with France very much in the lead. Do you have a gut feeling this could happen with Syria as well or would you rule it out?
You can't rule out anything. And you never know what kind of a rogue incident could trigger dynamics. At the same time I find it hard to imagine. The situation is very different from Libya - and not just because Syria is a lot more important player than Libya was. The domestic dynamics in the countries, particularly France, are very different, too: President Nicolas Sarkozy during the Libya course had a real interest in demonstrating himself as a strong man. Francois Hollande has just won his elections, and his party is looking good in the parliamentary elections as well. He doesn't need the same kind of show of force. The most important factor, of course, is the many ripple effects an intervention in Syria could have - more so than in Libya. Therefore, there is a high reluctance to really consider a military intervention here.
What about giving the UN mission a different mandate for instance to protect civilians actively, if need be with arms?
That would be a military intervention. That would be a UN peace enforcement contingent on the ground, a completely different political ballgame that would never find the consent of Russia in the Security Council. It would have to be a very different kind of force, it would be much larger, it would have to have a huge logistical scale. In order to support any kind of mission it would require some degree of intelligence sharing. Plus, it's entirely unclear what the military situation on the ground is like and what the military objective would be. Would it be to create a safe haven for rebels? Would it be to support rebel forces operating on the ground? Who is it that we support? Do we know these people? Do we have any idea what their agenda is? Arming people on the ground would be a very drastic step and a very unlikely one, because it would constitute a military intervention.
The massacre in Houla was immediately compared to what happened in Srebrenica in the Bosnia war. We have people on the ground, and the world is watching what's happening. What can the West do to avoid having to say in 20 years' time that it wished it had done something differently?
I really don't know. The dilemma is that of course the situation is unbearable and can't go on, but at the same time, an alternative to this - which would be an outright war with Syria - is very hard to do and is not embraced as an idea by very many. The Syrian regime can feel very safe at the moment because the Security Council is blocked through Syria's ally.
How can we look in the mirror in 20 years and say yes, we did the right thing? That would require a degree of risk-taking now in Western Europe and in the United States that would require them to embark on a military adventure. It would be a degree of risk-taking that nobody wants to do at the moment and very few actually could do. It would certainly mean a very strong engagement of the United States which would have to deliver the backbone of such an operation. The last thing President Obama needs in an election year is another war, with a very unlikely outcome and with a very high potential of failure. So my feeling is that for the moment we're stuck.
Interview: Nina Haase, Brussels
Editor: Rob Mudge