x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

More clarity needed on Syria intervention

If the League backs the Syrian opposition's case at the UN Security Council, it would bring great pressure to bear on Russia.

There is a growing momentum for a military solution in Syria. A senior military defector has been given charge of reorganising former soldiers under one command to encourage large-scale defection. And yesterday it was reported that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, has suggested sending Arab troops to end the bloodshed.

President Bashar Al Assad can be thanked for this escalation. He effectively declared war against his people in his last speech, announcing no "middle ground" in the war against a "conspiracy". The opposition Syrian National Council will refer the matter to the UN Security Council this week and submit a proposal calling for intervention.

Amid this escalating rhetoric, however, many questions about the nature of intervention remain unanswered. Moscow and Beijing might oppose any decision against Damascus at the Security Council. And how a no-fly zone might be implemented is still a vague idea.

What is clear is that the Arab League cannot deal with the situation on its own. Later this month, the League will meet to assess its observer mission in Syria, and will either end the mission or seek a further mandate. In either case, Arab states need to engage other international organisations and the Syrian opposition. Damascus knows by now that the League by itself is unable to take firm action against it.

If the case is not referred to the Security Council, mere threats of intervention only play into the hands of Mr Al Assad. For all of the risks and regional consequences, military intervention would be a great threat to the regime's survival, but merely talking about it strengthens Mr Al Assad's argument about a "foreign conspiracy".

Russia may be likely to veto any Security Council resolution, but the Arab League shares some blame because it has not exerted any diplomatic pressure. If the League backs the Syrian opposition's case at the UNSC, it would bring great pressure to bear on Russia. The League must also continue to exert pressure through economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Another Arab priority should be to bring the opposition together and recognise it diplomatically.

The unity of the opposition is crucial in ending the bloodshed. As the situation stands now, many Syrians are still on the fence. In an interview with ABC News last month, Mr Al Assad acknowledged as much: "The majority of Syrian people are in the middle."

Mistakes at this juncture risk pushing that majority towards Mr Al Assad. Any move towards intervention must be considered carefully, for civil war hangs in the balance.