Region: Middle East
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Elena Suponina

PhD in Philosophy, Adviser to the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Asia and Middle East specialist, RIAC expert

In July the UN Security Council must decide what to do with the mission of international observers in Syria. Under the current mandate, which was established on April 21, 2012 Security Council resolution number 2043, their planned 90-day mandate expires on July 20th.

In July the UN Security Council must decide what to do with the mission of international observers in Syria. Under the current mandate, which was established on April 21, 2012 Security Council resolution number 2043, their planned 90-day mandate expires on July 20th.

The Muslim fast of Ramadan is set to worsen the situation

By a dramatic coincidence, this year's Muslim fasting month of Ramadan also, according to the lunar calendar, falls on July 20th. In the past, at these times the activity of Muslims declined, but this is now over. On the contrary, in this period of the strengthening of Islamic movements throughout the region, during the period of Ramadan we should expect new shocks. In July Syria is going to be dangerously hot.

In August 2011, Ramadan began on the first day of the month. Mosques became a sort of center of protests during the entire period of Ramadan when a lot of people go to evening prayers. The experience of last year showed that, after prayers and breaking of fast (during this sacred period people cannot eat or drink during daylight hours), they now don’t go home but go to rallies, aided by the coolness of the evening. It was a bloody Ramadan. This time may be even worse.

In the opposition ranks there are a lot of Islamists. And one of the claims put forward by them to President Bashar al Assad, is that he never became the leader of the majority of the Syrians, as he has relied mainly on connections with family and friends. According to the opposition, under the younger Assad, who took power by inheritance after the death in 2000 his father, President Hafez al-Assad, corruption and nepotism have increased, despite declaring a policy of reforms.

Assad is a native of the Alawite religious community. They are close to Shiite Muslims, but even so different from them, that some believers suspect them of heresy. For example, the Alawite believe in reincarnation, and that is not approved by Shiites or even more so by Sunnis. Of the 22 million population of Syria, almost 75% are Sunni Muslims.

Downed Turkish spy plane - one more step towards war

The fracture may occur in the first half of July. This largely depends on the situation in Syria and around it. Indeed, in a hot conflict, any incident (for instance a massacre in a village or a heavy attack) may be a legitimate reason for a deterioration of the situation with uncontrollable consequences.

Take one recent example - a Turkish spy plane shot down on June 22, 2012 by Syrian air defense forces. Turkey announced that the pilots did not violate the airspace of Syria. It is possible that Syrian missile operators overreacted, since the day before they received a scolding for having missed a defector. Syrian colonel Hassan Merhi al-Hamade in an old MiG-21 fighter jet took off from Syria and landed in neighboring Jordan, announcing that he would not support the regime. Whatever it was, such emergencies at any time may well be the cause of a sharp turn in events.

Turkey, being one of the 28 member countries of NATO, demanded an emergency meeting of the NATO Council. The reason being that under Articles 4 and 5 of the Charter of this organization, it is stated, that member countries should take measures in case the security and sovereignty of any of them are threatened. Among the possible measures, a military response is not excluded. As a result, the NATO Council at an urgently convened Meeting on 26 June, "strongly condemned" Syria, and Turkey has threatened "harsh response" in the case if something like this occurring in the future.

The risk of regional turmoil

Public figures must address not only the easy questions. The latter are often resolved by themselves. It is when the situation is not clear and out of balance, that it becomes necessary to make the big decisions that can save the world.

Another question to consider is that the last resort is fraught with great risks, far more serious than that in the case of Libya. The Syrian army is stronger than the Libyan one, and the Syrians missile defense systems are better. Conflicts at Syria’s neighbors exacerbate the situation. There is unrest in Lebanon, and even more alarmingly in Iraq. Israel and the Palestinians also cannot reach peace. Also Turkey has complex relations with its Kurdish minority, which supports close contacts with the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Few people want to take responsibility for a difficult situation that is threatening to get out of control, with the probability of more widespread instability in the region. The NATO partners do not forget that Russia, China, Iran and some other countries are against military action. These countries are unlikely to interfere in this scenario, but their political arguments and concerns must be considered.

So for the West, which has faced difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easier and more convenient not to be involved directly in events themselves, but to act covertly, strengthening the forces of the opposition in parallel with increasing the economic and political pressure on Damascus.

But life is often turbulent in the Middle East, and often brings changes in plans. In this situation, nothing can be ruled out.

Many of the Syrian opposition, including in conversations with the author of this article, have for a long time presented their arguments for the establishment of no fly zones in Syria. Based on the example of Libya (where it all happened quickly), Iraq (where many years have passed since the introduction of zones at the beginning of the war years), and Yugoslavia, we know what that means.

It should be noted that on July 2nd and 3rd at the headquarters of the Arab League leaders of major organizations and groups are scheduled to meet the Syrian opposition. Arab and Western donors are trying to unite them around a common agenda, and have planned activities designed to facilitate this.

Diplomacy will give an answer in the first half of July

By early July things will be clearer because on June 30th Geneva will host an international meeting of mediators, who claim that their goal is to find a peaceful solution. It will be a serious attempt to reach a compromise, firstly between all the mediators themselves. That is, between those who belong to the support for the opposition, the "Group of Syria Friends" (the USA, EU, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and several dozens of other states), and those who believe that such open help as expressed in millions of dollars and euros of support for the opposition is a violation of international principles of sovereignty and noninterference in the internal affairs of States. This view is held especially by Russia and China.

It would be nice if the meeting was attended by representatives of Iran. The initiative to invite them came from the Russians. The West and the Arab monarchies reacted cautiously to the idea, because they do not trust the Iranians. But we must not forget that Tehran has a lot more leverage than Moscow over the Syrian government, as it provides a lot of help to Syria, not only politically but also financially.

The lack of trust today in the international community is critically high, including between Moscow and Washington. This is one of the reasons that the reaction to the dangerous development of the Syrian conflict is inhibited and sometimes contradictory. The world is showing its weakness in the face of serious challenges.

At a time when we should come together and find common solutions, discarding differences on other issues, minor disputes overshadow results.

This, of course, is not the first time. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in his book "The Second World War”, published five years after the war, described in detail how mutual distrust continues to push the world towards disaster. "Public figures must address not only the easy questions. The latter are often resolved by themselves. It is when the situation is not clear and out of balance, that it becomes necessary to make the big decisions that can save the world"- he warned.

The Syrian scales are too unstable at this moment. In the words of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which he said in June, "on the path, on which a settlement in Syria will be made, will depend the balance of power in the world and how the world will be after”, and this is no exaggeration.

UN observers are waiting for guidance

The path proposed by Russia is to revive the peace plan, which was developed with the participation of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. According to his plan, in Syria from April 12th there was to be a cease fire. But this, as we see, did not happen. So far, nobody has offered a real mechanism for the withdrawal of the plan from its coma state.

The West proposes to introduce an international embargo against the Syrian government in addition to its unilateral sanctions. But this has little relevance to the Kofi Annan plan. Also Russia believes this approach is unfair and has accused the opposition of violating the ceasefire too. Perhaps the situation would be defused early with the resignation of B. Assad as president (his second seven-year term expires in 2014). But who will make him do it if he does not want to?

The fate of the UN observer mission in Syria (UNSMIS) is closely related to the plan. Do we count on the inspectors still located there and risking their lives for a political settlement, or are other measures needed? Today, working in Syria there are 298 unarmed observers from 48 countries, including several people from Russia. In total, according to the resolution, there may be no more than 300 observers in Syria. In addition more than 100 technical staff (82 foreigners and 30 local) were hired to help. It has been allocated 16.8 million dollars from the UN budget for a three month mission, which is formed by contributions from 193 Member States.

During this period, the number of victims of domestic conflict in Syria has increased by several thousand. On average, 20 to 100 people are killed every day. According to the UN, from mid-March 2011 more than 12 thousand people were killed, with the losses being on both sides and, most cruel of all, so many victims are among the civilian population, including children.

However, the number of victims would have been greater if not for the observers who, like a fire brigade, quenched the violence at least in areas where they were physically present themselves. Another benefit of these is that, even when they were late arriving to the place of another tragedy, still they become a source of credible information about the incident.

This is extremely important in a situation where parties to the conflict accuse each other of atrocities committed, and when the bloody truth is clouded richly in sophisticated lies. If you cannot prevent violence, we must live at least in the hope that the criminals will be punished, and this requires evidence.

Nevertheless, the Norwegian Chief of the Mission General Robert Mood has made it clear that the mission should continue and would increase its size (from the outset it was clear that 300 people was too little, but the Syrian authorities strongly objected to the thousands proposed) this makes sense only against a background of political agreements.

The time to reach the agreements is short, and the range of political solutions is narrowing. The military solution would mean that the observers have nothing more to do there. If the political process is not be able to be established or be followed by a radical change in the mandate of the UN mission (in favor of peace, for example), the mission will fold. In general, the choices are limited: either agreements or war in one or another of its kind - civil, regional, or with the participation of forces from outside.

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