There are many reasons why Syria isn’t another Libya and so requires an alternative model of resolution, perhaps, similar to Yemen and Egypt where a political arrangement paved the way for leadership transition. This is precisely where the role of Syria’s main Asian allies is crucial to any kind of lasting progress.
Clearly, Syria is in the midst of a protracted humanitarian crisis. With thousands killed and ongoing deadly clashes between security forces and armed opposition – including a bombing attack Thursday in Damascus that killed dozens and shaved the facade off a military intelligence building – the international community is still struggling to effectively implement a roadmap to peace.
Ongoing shelling of opposition strongholds, especially in Homs and Idlib, has further intensified calls for some kind of international intervention, sentiments given voice at the Friends of Syria Summit at the end of March in Istanbul. Yet it’s also clear that there’s little appetite, especially among many NATO countries, for intervention, whether in the form of establishing humanitarian buffer zones or the imposition of a no-fly-zone.
On top of the mission creep associated with the Libyan intervention, Syria’s superior defensive capabilities, relatively astute and intact leadership, densely populated landscape, and lack of hydrocarbon resources has so far deterred any direct intervention. Yet what makes Syria so special is the degree to which it enjoys tremendous operational, diplomatic, and strategic support from three Asian powers: namely, Iran, China, and Russia.
This means that there only two realistic options: first, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) plan to step up its logistical and financial support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in order to reverse the regime’s military edge; or an international mission followed by independent monitoring and an eventual political settlement between the government and all relevant factions in the opposition, especially the Syrian National Council (SNC).
So far, it seems that the second option has been enjoying greater international resonance. However, regional states – from GCC members to Turkey – have reserved the right to some kind of intervention.
But whereas in Libya a coalition of NATO and Arab forces – emboldened by the acquiescence of Eastern powers – decided the fate of the Gaddafi regime, the Syrian crisis is undoubtedly contingent on the sustained and genuine cooperation of these Asian powers, which have so far stood by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. The idea behind the Annan mission, led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, was to take into account this geopolitical fact, and Annan’s strategic foresight has played a pivotal role in the crafting, lobbying, and implementation of his so-called Six-Point Peace Plan.
There are three reasons why the Annan plan appeared to have a chance for success (or at least of improving conditions on the ground). First there was his acceptance of the fact that the Assad regime still wields considerable control over the country, so Annan chose to deal directly with him. Second, Annan employed the help of Syria’s main Asian partners through continuous lobbying and high-profile diplomatic visits to Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran. Finally, instead of getting caught up in the regime change discourse, Annan focused on the most essential elements, namely the immediate cessation of violence, putting monitoring teams on the ground, providing much-needed humanitarian aid to affected areas, and paving the way for a political resolution.
The best way to dissuade Assad from further large-scale security operations is by putting pressure on the regime’s external patrons, who have played a significant role in allowing the regime to survive amidst the economic meltdown and political chaos. Besides, if the regime – with or without Assad – is intent on surviving, and avoiding total international isolation, it needs to agree to some form of diplomatic settlement with the international community.
On the other hand, Syria’s Asian partners are also feeling the pressure, and have started to encourage the Syrian regime to suspend its deadly security operations. Even Tehran, Assad’s most important ally, has called for a political solution and cessation of violence. This is precisely why Assad agreed to the Annan plan.
It’s noteworthy that the “Asia 3” backed the Annan plan, and they are likely to continue to do so as long as two conditions are met: first, there no direct calls within it for Assad to step down; second, any resolution or measure should not exclusively blame the regime for the violence, instead placing appropriate blame on the opposition.
All three Asian powers have their own interest in seeing a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the Syrian impasse.
Syria hosts Russia’s sole naval base in the Mediterranean, allowing the latter to project its power in the waters along Europe’s southern borders. Syria is Iran’s most important regional ally, allowing Tehran to project its power throughout the Levant. For China, energy security is a concern. Any military intervention in Syria could potentially drag its most important regional ally, Iran, into the picture, precipitating a regional war that could lead to disruptions in oil supplies.
Russia and China also have another reason to back Syria: they are not only interested in asserting their international presence, but are concerned another intervention in the Middle East could set a further precedent for intervention in their own backyards. After all, both Russia and China are facing separatist and/or insurgency movements within their own peripheries.
In addition to troubles in the Russian Caucasus and Xinjiang Province, rising popular discontent with the rigidities of the Russian and Chinese political systems, coupled with economic uncertainty, is also raising serious concerns over the possibility of large-scale democratic upheaval in the coming years.
All three powers have direct interests in keeping the Syrian regime in power, preventing the emergence of a failed state or a hostile revolutionary government. Thus, any political settlement will need to properly employ the influence of these three powers by recognizing their unique set of interests.
Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: Jrheydarian@gmail.com.