Voice

Does the EU have a winning strategy on Syria?

The always interesting and informed Richard Gowan takes a hard look at the European Union's diplomatic strategy on Syria:

Although frustrated by Sino-Russian obstructionism, European diplomats have chosen to use the Security Council as a platform to publicise the case against Assad. In October, having tried to find compromise language on sanctions, they tabled a mildly-worded resolution in the knowledge that China and Russia would veto it. This ostensibly self-defeating strategy (which the U.S. had doubts about) has at least pushed Moscow and Beijing to try and legitimise their defense of Damascus. Russia has served up a series of resolutions of its own, calling for an end to violence but making no reference to sanctions. 

In the meantime, resolutions condemning Syria’s actions have been passed by large majorities in both the Human Right Council and UN General Assembly – forums that are usually hostile to Western positions. In the final quarter of 2011, the Arab League used the threat of pushing for Security Council action (as it did very effectively over Libya) to persuade Assad to accept its observer mission.   

Overall, therefore, the EU has arguably (i) scored a series of victories in the battle for international opinion over how to treat Syria through UN forums; (ii) used both UN debates and UN monitoring to help build a framework to manage the crisis; and (iii) succeeded in exploiting its economic leverage over Syria. However, these tactical successes have not translated into strategic success: the Assad government has yet to open serious political discussions over the country’s future (or its own); the Syrian army is continuing its abuses and outfoxed the Arab League; and worse violence may loom. 

One interesting feature  of the diplomacy surrounding both Libya and Syria is how little talk there has been of outsiders using force without Security Council approval (although this might have been a live topic if Russia and China had not acquiesced to intervention in Libya). The Kosovo precedent--humanitarian intervention without a Council mandate--has not resurfaced. The scant discussion of this option may signal a deepening of the understanding that states cannot initiate force--at least not for elective,  "community" purposes such as humanitarian intervention--without the Council's blessing.

More: Hayes Brown has an interesting--and quick!--response up here. He argues in good lawyerly fashion that the Kosovo precedent isn't dead--it's just very, very narrow:

The third dynamic that was present in Kosovo, and is lacking in Syria to a certain degree, is a clear and systematic killing of one side by the other with genocidal repercussions. The Syrian government’s crackdown is fierce and brutal, but has yet to be one of imminent mass slaughter as we saw in Libya with Benghazi and in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. The fourth dynamic, and the most important for our comparison, is that there must no Great Power interests at stake preventing intervention. Here is where Syria and Kosovo diverge the most. The Kosovo intervention was disapproved of by Russia due to cultural ties with Serbia and the use of the NATO alliance to carry it out. But no material links were truly in place between the two states. In Syria, however, there are economic and strategic ties with Russia at stake, in the form of arms sales to Damascus and the southernmost Russian naval base remaining. Russia will not abide by an intervention in Syria without Council approval and the other Great Powers don’t want to push Russia into retaliatory actions in other relations they have with Moscow.

I don't find these distinctions compelling. The estimates I've seen suggest that more have been killed in Syria than was the case in Kosovo at the time of international intervention. Pace Brown, pre-intervention Kosovo was not a situation of mass slaughter; instead, there had been a steady accretion of violence and displacement (in fact, the most intense campaign of forced displacement occurred after NATO intervention).  

As to Russian opposition, is Brown suggesting that Russia would use force to oppose intervention in Syria? It appears to me that Russian objections are about the same order of intensity as they were in Kosovo. At one point in the run-up to the Kosovo intervention Boris Yeltsin reportedly called up Bill Clinton and screamed at him about the dangers of pushing Russia too far. And it's worth remembing that during the Kosovo intervention, Russia actually did deploy its forces to seize Pristina's airport before NATO forces could get there, leading to a tense standoff.

The Multilateralist

UK's Cameron wants "coalition of willing" on trade

UK prime minister David Cameron, speaking at Davos, called for groups of like-minded states to advance the free trade agenda, even in the absence of a deal on the Doha Round:

In the absence of a conclusion to the Doha free trade talks, Mr Cameron also proposed that a "coalition of the willing" could "forge ahead with more ambitious deals of their own" with agreements with India, Canada and Singapore.

He also called for the EU to "look at options for agreement" with the US in a deal that "could have a bigger impact than all of the other agreements put together".

"And why not an ambitious deal between Europe and Africa?" he went on.

Mr Cameron added: "This is a bold agenda on trade which can deliver tangible results this year, and I am proposing that we start work on it immediately. All these decisions lie in our own hands. The problems we face are man-made, and with bold action and real political will we can fix them."

On Saturday, trade ministers at Davos are expected to meet informally to discuss the state of play, although expectations are low.