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France plans new Syria push at UN Security Council

France has said it will call for an emergency meeting on Syria as soon as it takes over the presidency of the UN Security Council in August, but many wonder what the gathering can accomplish.

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As the new head of the UN Security Council from Wednesday, France wants to convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council to find an international response to the escalating violence in Syria. However, analysts remain sceptical about the chances of a breakthrough, as Russia and China continually refuse to endorse sanctions on the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke out strongly against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on July 30, insisting foreign ministers representing world powers would be called on to discuss a new resolution condemning Assad, but also a “transition period” for the war-torn country.

Speaking to reporters at the Olympic Games in London on Monday night, President François Hollande confirmed France would push for a meeting “as soon as possible”, once it takes over the rotating presidency of the Security Council on August 1.

Unrealistic?

However, Fabious and Hollande’s wish for a diplomatic solution in the short-term seems unrealistic. Moscow has shown no signs of abandoning Assad and blamed the West and Arab countries for fuelling the civil war by backing the opposition - both symbolically and by the sale of communication equipment and weapons.

While British, US and French leaders have often stated that Assad has lost legitimacy and must step down, Russia and China have said the Syrian leader is part of the solution and has a role to play in post-war Syria.

On Monday, Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said on the micro-blogging website Twitter: “The situation is really critical in Aleppo. It is clear that biased media try to do work for the opposition when [the rebels] fail.”

Fighting has intensified in Syria’s main cities of Damascus and Allepo during past weeks. The government has been struggling to recover positions won by rebels, and the number of reported deaths has been steadily rising almost daily.

“Things have been totally blocked at the Security Council for some time now because of the standoff between the West on one side and China and Russia on the other. Because of this impasse, most diplomats and experts in the halls of the UN tell us that - if there is a meeting - it will be very difficult to accomplish anything,” said FRANCE 24 correspondent Emmanuel Saint-Martin from New York.

Saint-Martin said similar sentiments were expressed by France’s allies, especially the Americans, who said other alternatives needed to be explored. “Contrary to President Hollande, the Americans appear to have given up hope for a diplomatic solution,” he added.

Limited alternatives

Outside the usual UN channels, analysts see few diplomatic options - especially given the divisions that plague the Syrian opposition and the Arab League. “The gap inside the Security Council seems too deep to breach,” said Majid Rafizadeh, a Washington DC-based Syrian-Iranian scholar. “The problem is the UN is the only game in town, the only credible venue.”

According to the Middle East specialist, one of the best ways of accelerating Assad’s departure would be for foreign powers to recognise an exiled Syrian government, in a move reminiscent of the Libyan civil war last year.

In June 2011, France under former president Nicolas Sarkozy recognised the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. That decision precipitated a NATO-led military intervention that helped topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi a few months later.

However, according to Rafizadeh, the same scenario is difficult to repeat in Syria, where the main opposition group – the Syrian National Council – has limited credibility among ordinary Syrians and has repeatedly displayed internal divisions.

“The Syrian National Council has had no consistency in its message with big differences between its members, who are mostly outside the country, and local forces fighting Assad,” Rafizadeh noted, “They are unfortunately too divided to be recognised as an exiled government.”

For many, the Arab League has also demonstrated its incapacity to take the lead in solving the crisis. While Saudi Arabia remains keen on supporting the Syrian opposition, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – who share borders with Syria – have hesitated to apply pressure on Assad, fearing the civil war could spill over national boundaries.

No rabbit out of the hat

France has already shown it was interested in taking on a bigger role in the Syrian crisis, hosting the third, and so-far largest, “Friends of Syria” meeting in Paris on July 6. Members at the conference agreed to increase aid to Syria’s opposition, especially by providing it with new communications technology.

According to Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut, it does make sense for France to keep up pressure on Russia and China through the UN Security Council, even if France itself does not expect a sudden diplomatic breakthrough.

“No one assumes they will pull a rabbit out of the hat. But by continuing to push for sanctions at the UN, France and Western countries look good and further embarrass Russia who appear to block international initiatives consistently,” he said. “Requesting a new meeting serves a function without necessarily much purpose.”

For Sayigh, Russia, and even regional ally Iran, appear to be getting tired of Assad and they may eventually agree on a transitional arrangement in which he steps down completely. The Syrian population will likely suffer through new cycles of violence in the near future, but windows for more intense diplomacy will probably open up as well.

“France can’t do anything on its own,” Sayigh noted, adding that the country’s practical challenges included staying in tune with the United States and holding an honest dialogue with Syria’s fractured opposition.

Some members of the battle-weary opposition also looked ready to accept a less-than-perfect transitional arrangement that would exclude Assad but include some figures of the current regime.

So while France continues to blast Assad and draw attention to Russia at the UN, its critical role may be persuading Syria’s opposition to also move closer to a compromise position.
 

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