By Benedict Moran
Sunday’s Arab League proposal may breathe a gust of fresh air into the hallways of the UN Security Council, which has been long deadlocked on the issue of Syria.
Western countries in the 15-member body, including the UK, France, the US, and Germany, have long backed strong condemnation of what they perceive as a blatant violation of human rights in the country, and seek sanctions or an arms embargo as punitive action against Damascus.
Russia, and to various degrees China, India, and South Africa, have opposed involvement, saying the West is overstepping its bounds and is interfering in the sovereign affairs of a state. They have continued to call for political dialogue.
In part, the deep divisions over the role of the international body stem from a degree of regret that some members feel since it mandated international intervention in Libya.
Russia, India and South Africa have complained that NATO overstepped its mandate there by trying to bring down Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, the Security Council has been unable to respond to calls for strong action elsewhere.
In October, Russia and China vetoed a European-backed resolution which threatened sanctions against Damascus if it did not halt its military crackdown against civilians.
After calls for Security Council action to prevent further bloodshed in the country, Russia proposed its own draft resolution in December. But the move was largely seen by many in the Council as dilatory and the resolution weak. It has so far failed to get Western backing.
The Arab League proposal – which was called a “game-changer” by Germany’s ambassador to the UN on Monday – once again tilted the balance towards those in favour of strong Security Council action.
The plan calls for President Bashar al-Assad to delegate power to his vice-president, and for internationally-supervised elections to be held under a national unity government. Importantly, it seeks endorsement from the UN Security Council.
Such a request would be politically difficult for Russia to ignore, according to one Western diplomat. In recent times, the Council has given extra weight to such a petition.
In the case of Libya, a major turning point came in March 2010, when the Arab League asked the UN Security Council to impose a no-flight zone over the country. This was an unprecedented move for the Arab body, and came after the Libyan UN ambassador himself pleaded to the international body to aggressively act against attacks by Gaddafi’s troops.
Shortly after, the Council passed Resolution 1973 (Russia and China abstained), which authorised the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians.
Though such strong action is extremely unlikely with Syria, some see the Arab League proposal as already going beyond even what was proposed in October, as the plan calls for a full transfer of power and sets a timetable for democratic elections in the country.
In New York on Monday afternoon, Western diplomats and their Arab counterparts had already met to discuss next steps, including whether or not to use the Russian draft as a base from which to plan further action. But many doubt Russia’s ability to lead on a new draft, according to a Western diplomat, in light of its obstruction on its own draft.
For this reason, it is likely that a new resolution would be drafted in the coming days.
It would be worded in close collaboration with the Arab League in the hopes of getting the full support international body.