Syria’s suspension from the Arab League for its violent crackdown on dissidents may help Western leaders revive efforts to impose sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s regime, after their first attempt was blocked in the UN Security Council.
The U.K. and France will lay the groundwork for a new resolution starting with consultations today. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said yesterday “it is high time to step up pressure.”
In a rare double veto not seen since 2008, Russia and China knocked down an Oct. 4 United Nations resolution that called for Assad to halt the crackdown that began in March and, by UN estimates, has killed more than 3,500 people.
“The Arab League decision has the potential to be a game-changer,” said George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator and professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Still, they are going to need to “either strong-arm the Russians or directly name and shame them about their Syrian support to get them to move.”
At the Arab League, which has 22 members, 18 voted for Syria’s suspension and only Lebanon and Yemen, whose own leader is also trying to quash a revolt, voted against it on Nov. 12. In reaction, Assad supporters have attacked embassies of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Damascus.
Assad cracked down on protesters even after the agreeing on Nov. 2 to an Arab League plan for ending the violence. Security forces killed 17 people yesterday, Al Arabiya television reported, citing activists.
Russian Arms Sales
The isolation of Assad in the Arab world will make it tougher for Russia, which sells arms to Syria, and China, which buys its oil, to shield an important economic partner.
“Setting the table for sanctions are bold steps” by the 22-member group, said Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the UN.
The Arab League has played a critical role before. It was the group’s endorsement of a no-fly zone in Libya that dissolved resistance to a UN resolution that paved the way for NATO bombings to protect civilians from the late Muammar Qaddafi’s forces.
Still, that precedent has created animosity within the council and held up attempts by the U.S. and Europe to weigh in more forcibly in other countries swept up by the Arab Spring.
The killing of Qaddafi last month was judged a disaster by critics, led by Russia, who said the UN mandate was abused to bring about regime change. South Africa, Brazil and India are among the skeptical nations on the council that must be persuaded events in Libya won’t be repeated in Syria.
In the case of Syria, there wasn’t a push at the Security Council for a military intervention. The Europeans last month called for an arms embargo and weakened an initial draft in a bid to overcome Russian opposition. The final text, which was stripped of all specific references to sanctions, was still rejected by Russia and China.
Pressure is building for the UN’s most powerful body to step away from the sidelines.
Human Rights Watch is urging the UN to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and to impose an arms embargo and sanctions. In a 63-page report, the advocacy group cited torture and killings of civilians in Homs, a center of opposition to Assad, by Syrian government forces, indicating “that crimes against humanity have been committed.”