Opinion: April Critical for Syria

The dramatic announcement that the Syrian regime would finish pulling out troops from cities in the country by April 10 marks the first concrete chance that the chaotic violence in the country could end in negotiations. Obviously, that deadline alone makes April very important for Syria’s future, and the future of dictator Bashar al-Assad—who has killed thousands of his own people in the last year to try to hold on to power.

But there’s another reason that April is vital in determining if Assad will win, civil war will erupt or if peace will take hold: the significant role to be played this month by the United States.

First, some background. The United Nations Security Council is basically the most powerful international body today. It holds the most sway in the UN, and its decisions are legally binding. It can impose global sanctions, launch peacekeeping missions and provide an important stamp of approval for international armed conflict.

It has played and continues to play a major role in the Iranian nuclear situation, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and, to a lesser degree thus far, Syria. It effectively paved the way for armed intervention in Libya too.

The most powerful members on the Council are the five permanent members: the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. All five have veto powers, and along with Germany are the famed “P5+1” that leads negotiations with Iran in the nuclear dispute.

However, to keep these five powerhouses from ruling the UN, the Council is made up of 10 additional members who are voted by the UN General Assembly to serve two-year terms. In addition, the presidency of the Council is set up on a rotating basis: Each nation on the Council gets one month, and it moves in alphabetical order.

Hence Togo held the presidency in February, and the United Kingdom, the next letter in the alphabet, was president in March. Which brings us to April, and another “U”—the US.

The Security Council president-state does not get an extra vote and much of their prestige is symbolic. But they do get to highlight an issue before the Council for that month and their UN representative serves as the spokesperson for the Council as a whole. Hence, on Monday, it was US Ambassador Susan Rice who discussed the Syria situation on behalf of the Council.

So why is this important? Because it gives the US a noteworthy chance to highlight not only the Syria conflict and Assad’s brutality, but also allows the American perspective to be the first heard—the headline grabber, if you will.

The US is no friend of Assad—they have been calling for him to leave for months. Further, they are openly assisting his opposition, although they have stopped short of openly providing any arms to the Syrian rebels. Publicly they are content to oppose armed intervention and try to focus on diplomacy and sanction-induced pressure on the regime to end the crisis.

But they have also blasted Russia over vetoing action in the Security Council on Syria, and Rice gave a “wait-and-see” approach to Assad’s promised pullout.

Now she also had to clarify when she was giving her opinion as a representative of the US, and when she was speaking on behalf of the Council as president. But the simple fact is, for the month of April, a press conference on Syria at the Security Council is going to be presented through the US perspective.

This gives the US, the West, the Turks and the concerned Arab states an excellent chance to publicly pressure Assad, even publicly condemn him. And more importantly, it gives even more opportunity to at least implicitly pressure Russia and China to get tough on Syria through the power of public opinion.

Even when the US isn’t speaking on behalf of the Council, the presidency title is bound to be mentioned in newspapers, magazines and websites around the world: Hence, every word coming from Rice will take on an aura of greater symbolic significance.

It’s doubtful words and symbolism alone can change Assad’s mind, or Russia and China’s for that matter. But they can play a role, and they can also further embolden the Arab states and elsewhere to take even tougher steps towards Syria.

Because despite the optimism expressed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the reality is the image presented on Syria is that Assad is winning. And if no one intervenes, there’s no way the rebels can defeat Assad without a long, protracted civil war.

Unless, of course, Assad is persuaded that the world is moving against him, that his chances of getting away with his dignity and safety are diminishing.

And that’s why April is crucial. If Assad pulls out on April 10, the US can spearhead efforts to get UN monitors into Syria to oversee the peace and a political transition. If Assad breaks his word again, the US can lead efforts to further castigate and sanction him, and maybe get the ball rolling on additional, more serious UN moves in Syria.

Time, and options, are running short. China, who has backed Syria against most of the world twice now in the Council with vetoes, becomes Council president in June, after Azerbaijan. Even if the US can get things moving in April, it will take time to bring peace and freedom to Syria—and the more that happens by June the better.

So to the US—here’s your chance. Use that bully-pulpit as president at the Council. Name and shame nations and companies that back Assad. Highlight the atrocities carried out by the regime. And lead the way to protect the people and work to grant them their rights.

The old saying is that April showers bring May flowers. Here’s hoping Syria blooms with peace and freedom.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, April 3, 2012)