White blood cells are good. Except if there are too many of them. And especially if they decide certain parts of your body doesn’t belong, things can get nasty rather quickly. Perhaps a crude picture of what’s going on in Syria right now – but crude is all there is time for here.
The immediate question is less about why, who and how many, as it is about the astonishing inability to have it stopped. Essentially: Why could international support and agreement be reached over Libya – including support from the Arab League – and no such thing seem even remotely possible for Syria? Why do things grind to halt at the sanctions level (a level that has proven – repeatedly – to be as effective as taking aspirin against AIDS.)
While it would be pretentious to look for a simple answer, or indeed suggest only one exist, the contours of what’s going on can nevertheless be sketched. Most of that contour is made up of geopolitics. You know: The kind of politics where it is worth listening for what is not being said rather than what our talking heads do chant. Policy that is born out of doctrines about how <insert your country name here> can get ahead of the game. The kind of decision-making that happens behind closed doors where ice cold pro’s and con’s of this or that stance are examined.
For the West, a combination of economic meltdown, budget deficits deeper than a dried out well in Somalia and a military force that is stretched rather thin, has caused a loss of appetite for more “good doing” just right now. And some troops will likely have to be committed to Libya through a UN sanctioned peace support program anyway. Add to that some realistic calculations on oil supply: Syria simply doesn’t matter all that much. But Saudi Arabia does. Something that will become paramount in a minute to explain why Libya got the support they needed and the Syrian rebels don’t.
For the Arab League countries, considerations are quite different. For starters the fugitive Colonel Gaddafi wasn’t such a likable character to begin with. More important, he had oil – lots of it – and wielded some awesome influence due to that. With the armed revolt, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine the other members of the league thinking “what if we could get rid of him and have his oil production punched back to levels close to zero for many months? Without ever firing a single shot. And at the same time be counted among the right-doers. It’s a winner! ”. Of course there were fearful voices about contamination but by boldly voting for the UN to proceed with a no-fly zone resolution, the league would gain an important point of being a (if not the) deciding entity of what goes on regarding Arab matters. UN would essentially become second to the league for what concerns Arab countries. With that established, controlling the spread of the uprising wave would become easier.
It is worth noting that Syria was among the only two to vote against (Algeria was the other) and Russia initially rattled their sabre of veto in the UN upon hearing about a no-fly zone. There were (and are) reasons for that.
Algeria’s vote and general stance throughout is the easiest to understand: Their “profit and loss” calculation came out showing a loss if Gadaffi was toppled. The extra cash from oil contracts picked up behind the fallen dictator couldn’t outweigh the fear of some similar unrest spinning out of hand at home. Besides, having a brand new neighbor with little love to share, wasn’t an attractive scenario. The latest rumors of Algeria providing a hide-out for members of the Gadaffi family (and quite possibly high ranking members of his administration too), have triggered some very strong words from leading members of the TNC. Not a good omen for future relations.
Syria already had the beginnings of an uprising on their hands and no oil to speak of – for sure nothing that would make the cash deal sweet enough. Voting for the resolution would simply be the same as stepping up as the next one in line for a very ugly shot of penicillin. But it gets better: Syria has a very nice relationship with Russia. In 2005 a really cool deal got signed whereby Syria managed to write off 80% of their $13 Billion debt to Russia. That’s $10 Billion taken off the balance sheet in one stroke. Just like that. Well, actually, not quite. It was part of a much larger weapons deal that essentially saw Moscow buying a monopoly spanning several decades into the future. So now you know where the bullets that have so far enabled the Syrian dictator to kill more than 2500 of his own people come from. From Russia – with love.
That relationship changes everything in the Syrian calculation because Russia just happens to have a whole lot more sway in the corridors of the UN than Syria. Or almost any other member for that matter. They’re also the biggest oil producer in the world with a little over 12% of the pie. Not to mention their permanent seat in the Security Council. And guess where a lot of that oil (and gas) is shipped? To Europe. Add that up and throw in a veto right for good measure and you see why Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel aren’t going full bore on the issue. The US has no doubt also slipped a word or two through diplomatic back channels on their less-than-roaring enthusiasm about the prospect of a sequel.
So therefore all the hype is on sanctions. And on spinning some tale to explain why Libya but not Syria. Evidently without pointing the finger at anyone in particular – especially not Russia or Saudi Arabia. In the end it’ll be the Arab League who’ll take the brunt of the criticism.
With such a nice strong friend and the overall interests at stake, Syria has calculated they needn’t worry about the UN going for a sequel.
As for the Arab League, Syria finds comfort in the fact that they are right next door to Saudi Arabia (who don’t like the idea of a successful revolution that close to home, bringing on democracy and other unpleasant ideas – such as women’s rights for example). And Mr. al-Assad is after all considerably better mannered than the Colonel on the marbled floors. He is also the local re-seller of Russian technology, the US equivalent of which it is hard to locate an outlet for in the region. So, with a bit of help from Saudi Arabia for the “corridor work” in the Arab League, there won’t be any “no fly-zone” vote or similar troubles. Some strong language, stern warnings and other diplomatic arm waving is all. Nothing to worry about.
However, calculations can sometimes turn out to be wrong! Especially when people are armed with one of he most lethal weapons ever build: A smartphone with HD video and a free YouTube service, only a click away.