The ongoing dust-up in the UN Security Council (UNSC) over Syria, reflected in the rare but potent double veto by China and Russia against the resolution advocated by the Western members among the permanent five (P-5), might indicate the beginning of another Cold War era gridlock in the world’s most powerful decision-making body. Indeed, the twin veto, last used by China and Russia to block proposed sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2008, signals a serious dispute and indicates the drawing of a strategic red line. However, while this spat could freeze the UNSC into inaction, it need not be so and the three UNSC aspirant Ibsa (India, Brazil, South Africa) members could play a critical role to prevent this logjam.

Although the divisive vote indicates great power discord over Syria, there is actually significant convergence on the matter. First, none of the UNSC members are actually defending the Bashar al-Assad regime’s military crackdown against its own citizens. China, for instance, said that it did not “want to see more bloodshed, conflict and casualties" and asked the regime to “more rapidly implement their promises of reform". Similarly Russia has publicly criticized the Assad regime’s brutal military action and called for him to implement reforms or step down. The Russian admonition is particularly telling given that Damascus is Moscow’s last remaining ally in the region. If Assad goes, so will Russian influence in the Middle East.

Demonstrators protesting against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad march through the streets with a giant Syrian national flag in Sakba on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. Photo: Reuters

While the West prefers sanctions and, possibly, military action as a likely solution, Russia and China are keener on allowing the regime space to carry out reforms but are not averse to regime change, if reforms fail. However, neither of these is likely to be effective.

The drawbacks of military action were evident in Libya when the operation stretched to six months and despite the military victory the future remains uncertain. Similarly, the inability of the Assad regime to push forward reforms and engage with the opposition also shows the drawback of expecting regimes to transform on their own.

In contrast, the Ibsa countries are averse to military actions for fear that this might lead to greater bloodshed. They also baulk at externally imposed regime change and reforms that might tear apart the secular fabric of Syria. Consequently, they seek a dialogue between the Assad regime and the opposition groups and are the only members of the UNSC who have made a serious effort to engage Assad diplomatically.

An Ibsa delegation to Damascus in August reportedly got a commitment from Assad for multi-party elections and a new constitution by March 2012 (see “Anna and the Syrian dilemma", Mint, 22 August 2011).

It is now time for Ibsa to build on this initial effort. As a first step, the Ibsa delegation should offer to brief the UNSC on its mission to Damascus. A second step might be to organize and lead a high-level delegation, including senior representatives from the P-5, to Syria with the objective of engaging both the Assad regime and the opposition groups. Finally, based on these interactions and building on the UNSC’s presidential statement on Syria, a new UNSC resolution might be considered. This resolution could focus on a clear timeline for a new constitution, multi-party elections and a smooth transition in Syria.

Giving such a diplomatic initiative a fighting chance is imperative not only for the future of Syria but also to prove that Ibsa can bridge the traditional East-West divide and contribute to the effectiveness of the UNSC.

W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University.

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