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In Tunisia, a Challenge to Russia and China

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By William Tucker

A few days ago a commenter on the IHS post UN General Assembly Calls for Assad to Step Down asked if supporting the Syrian opposition would be a wise move to counter Iranian influence. My response was that, “Some commentators have suggested that removing Assad would disrupt Iranian designs. I agree that it would; however nothing good would come of it. Syria is situated in a geopolitically strategic area as it touches the Mediterranean, the Anatolian peninsula, and offers a doorway to the heart of Mesopotamia. What this means is, the area is not one that anybody would like to see in chaos – even if it means disrupting Iranian influence. It is clear that the Arab states and the West want Assad gone, but they want it done in an orderly fashion. Unfortunately, that is yet another pipe dream. The situation right now just doesn’t show any signs of resolving in a desirable manner for any interested party. Indeed, the situation is that bad. Policy wise, the players in the region are just looking to salvage whatever they can.” This brings us to the upcoming meeting of the “Friends of Syria” in Tunisia. This meeting was arranged by the Arab League and a few of the major participants included the U.S., U.K., France, and Turkey along with 70 other nations. Noticeably absent were Russia and China – the same two nations that blocked the last resolution on Syria at the UN Security Council.

Thus far, the attendees of the conference have said that military action against the Assad regime is off the table. That may be the case, but there is no other way to insert the humanitarian aid into Syria without carving out a zone for civilian protection. Thus, the nations wishing to distribute aid must employ some sort of protection. At this juncture the Friends have called on Assad to allow the aid into Homs specifically and the rest of the country more generally. Assad is unlikely to agree to any terms that could potentially lead to a foreign military presence. That leaves the friends little alternative but to seek a way to stop the violence without direct military action against the Assad regime. This is a situation that is, quite frankly, unworkable without a foreign military component.

The Friends are trying to intervene without intervening. They do understand the Russian and Chinese opposition to establishing a precedent of intervening such as that seen in Libya. It is apparent that the west, particularly the U.S., simply isn’t worried about the objections of second tier powers. The current unipolar world in which the U.S. is the global hegemon is something that Washington doesn’t necessarily want to give up voluntarily – even through limited diplomatic concessions. Not only is the “reset” with Russia dead, so too is any leniency on China. Both Russia and China will protest, but they will likely retaliate in a few regional hotspots to remind the U.S. they still retain levers. Oddly, the U.S. has typically responded in a rather aloof fashion to several provocative moves by Moscow and Beijing and will likely continue to do so. Whether this will lead to an escalation in action by Russia and China is yet to be seen, but one thing is clear. The calculus by which the major world powers operate is changing and any intervention in Syria may well be the spark the increases the divide between the U.S., Russia and China.

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