Creative diplomacy needed as conflict in Syria threatens its neighbors

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Decrying a rising death toll and an escalation of violence, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly called yet again for progress towards a political transition to defuse Syria’s civil war, now in its third year. Though the resolution strongly condemns the Syrian government of Bashar Assad for its increased use of heavy weapons, it equally condemns “widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” on all sides.

The Assembly vote, not surprisingly, saw 107 in favor of the resolution which saw support from most of the Arab world, the United States and Europe and much of Asia.

A rebel fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun during a regime airstrike on Tel Rafat, a village north of Aleppo.  /Reuters
A rebel fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun during a regime airstrike on Tel Rafat, a village north of Aleppo. /Reuters

Twelve countries opposed the resolution including Russia and Mainland China, the Assad regime’s staunchest backers as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. There were 59 abstentions including nearby Lebanon, and states such as Brazil, India, South Africa (the BRICS) and Singapore. The resolution is non-binding.

As Syria’s violence spirals, the country is splitting along sectarian fault lines; the Sunni Muslim majority is supported by Turkey as well as most Arab states, the Assad family dictatorship’s Alawite minority is supported by Iran, Iraq and elements in Lebanon’s ethnic patchwork. Syria’s embattled Christian minority looks to Lebanon as an escape route. Indeed the sectarian bloodbath has taken in excess of 80,000 lives. Ethnic enclaves and fiefdoms are forming and being reinforced by militias.

General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic, himself a Serbian, warned, “Violence is begetting more violence; hatred, more hatred, carving deeper and deeper wounds into Syria’s society.” He added, “If we are unable to do anything to stop this tragedy, then how can we sustain the moral credibility of this Organization…it is high-time to say ‘enough is enough.’ ”

Jeremic warned, “Succumbing to the despondency of the status quo is a prescription for a disastrous future” of multiplying crisis in Syria and the wider Middle East region.”

Let’s look at the human cost to Syria so far; 80,000 mostly civilians killed, more than a million refugees living in camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Over four million people have been internally displaced inside the country; in other words forces from their homes but still living inside Syria.

Days earlier Navi Pillay, UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights advised, “We should not reach the point where people become numb to the atrocious killing of civilians…the increasingly brutal nature of the conflict makes international efforts to halt the bloodshed imperative.” She decried human rights violations from both sides in the conflict.

The humanitarian aid and human rights mechanisms such as the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) perform a notable humanitarian service to the displaced, but let’s face it, the UN only solves the symptom, not the problem. The problem is political. Sadly Syria’s fractious opposition confronting the Assad dictatorship are fragmented, factionalized and shadowed by fundamentalist factions tied to Al Qaida.

Desultory diplomatic efforts towards dialogue have fallen on Syria’s hard scrabble and rocky earth; both sides have entrenched their position while outside powers become entwined in this bouillabaisse of factions. The Russians and Iran back Assad. The Arabs, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia support the rebels largely on sectarian grounds. Neighboring Turkey, which hosts 400,000 refugees and fears spillover of the war, needs a solution sooner rather than later.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have agreed to support renewed peace talks between notable factions of the government and the rebel opposition. Washington and Moscow are wise to defuse this political bomb in Damascus before the crisis widens and threatens to bring Syria to the brink of failed state.

Trying to create a stable and pluralist Syria (remember this was a secular Arab regime), sadly borders on the realm of political fantasy. The primary issue is stopping the violence before it spreads into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey or before Syria implodes into a frenzy of wider killing, refugees, and the morbid fascination of Al Qaida violence.

Syria borders six countries: Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Iran. Barring a credible ceasefire, the conflict will spill-over and create additional regional instability.

This is not a call for the USA to intervene militarily in another Mideast conflict, but an attempt to help midwife a long-overdue serious political transition through creative diplomacy to pull Syria back from the brink.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for