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Syrian solutions to Syrian problems: the new Middle East's old-school diplomacy

The popular uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East have upended the political order in the Middle East, but those changes have yet to trickle down to the Arab world's diplomatic corps at the United Nations.

In March, U.S. and European powers successfully pushed for a Security Council resolution in March authorizing military intervention in Libya. But China, India, Russia, and other champions of national sovereignty have since regained their footing, helping to block subsequent efforts by the West to condemn violent crackdowns against unarmed protesters in Syria and Yemen.

The U.N.'s Arab members, only weeks after backing a call for a no-fly zone in Libya, have returned to their old ways, seeking to shield an Arab neighbor, Syria, from outside pressure to rein in its security forces. Even as Syria faced criticism of its bloody crackdown on protesters in the U.N. Human Rights Council last month, it found support from its traditional friends. Next week, the U.N.'s Asian bloc, which includes Middle East governments, plans to put forward a slate of four candidates, including Syria, to fill four Asian vacancies on the 47-nation Human Rights Council.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes 57 Islamic governments, also sought to derail a Western-backed Human Rights Council resolution condemning Syria and establishing a commission of inquiry to probe abuses. In its place, the OIC put forward a dramatically revised text -- complete with extensive amendments written by the Syrian delegation-- highlighting Damascus' progress in addressing the protesters concern.

"It looks like the Arabs are protecting Syria," a senior U.S. official, who declined to speak publicly, told Turtle Bay.  "For the time being they are closing ranks.

Even countries like Egypt, whose own leader, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled by popular demonstrations, has shown little stomach for championing protest movements elsewhere. Egypt not only backed the OIC initiative, but offered up a series of its own watered down amendments aimed at protecting Syria from outside interference. Egypt proposed a provision affirming the "principle of non-interference in matters that are within the domestic jurisdiction of states," according to a copy of the confidential negotiation notes obtained by Turtle Bay.

Another Egypt amendment underscored Syria's right to take action to restore order,  "stressing that necessary and proper actions should be taken by authorities in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." But they came as Syrian authorities were stepping up their crackdown, sending tanks into restive towns, to brutally suppress continued resistance to the regime.

While the Egyptian delegation did call for the observance of human rights and participation in "public affairs" in Syria, its amendments eliminated any reference to the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which establishes an international obligation to intervene in humanitarian crises. The Security Council resolution that served as the basis for military intervention in Libya explicitly cited R2P.

"We've seen very little change in Egypt's approach towards human rights at the United Nations," Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told Turtle Bay. "People tell us it takes time to change foreign policy but we were hoping for a much greater transformation following the momentous events that took place in the street of Cairo and elsewhere."

In the end, the amendments offered by the OIC and Egypt failed to carry the day, and the Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning Syria's conduct and establishing a fact finding mission to probe alleged abuses.  But several Arab countries in the rights council sought to distance themselves from the council's condemnation of Syria. Saudi Arabia abstained from the vote, while three other Arab countries -- Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- didn't show up for the vote at all. (Egypt, which is not a member of the rights council, does not have a vote.)

The U.N.'s Arab Group, meanwhile, issued a statement early last month supporting Syria's bid to serve in the U.N. Human Rights Council. The U.S. and other countries have been urging a new candidate to join the race to challenge Syria when the U.N. General votes on a slate of new members of the 47-nation rights council. But some countries that have shown some interest, including Kuwait, have indicated they will not run unless Syria agrees to step aside, according to U.N. diplomats. Syria, meanwhile, has made it clear it intends to stand for the post.   

In the U.N. Security Council, several council diplomats expressed concern that NATO's deepening role in Libya has undercut efforts to take action to halt abuses elsewhere, eroding international support for the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. They have also registered concern that the council's politicized approach to the region's uprisings -- its pressuring of Syria and Libya  to behave while ignoring the bloody crackdown on U.S.-backed Bahrain -- is undermining the council's credibility. 

China, Russia, India, and to a lesser extent, Brazil and South Africa, have expressed concern that the Western-led military operation has exceeded its U.N. mandate to protect civilians, and has taken sides in a civil war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, following a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, blasted the so-called Libya contact group, a collection of states involved in enforcing the U.N. no fly zone on Libya, saying "it should not take sides" in the conflict, according to the Russian news service Interfax.

"No one wants Syria opened up the way it happened in Libya," India's U.N ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, said last week, according to Bloomberg News. "For the moment, it would be best not to do anything."

Not everyone agrees that Libya is killing off R2P.  Edward Luck, who serves as a special advisor to the U.N. Secretary General, told Turtle Bay that he thought Libya provided a test case for the effective of military airpower in protecting civilians, not in global support for the principle of R2P. "The very fact that the Security Council invoked the responsibility to protect without any dissent is a recognition that this is becoming an accepted principle and standard for national and international behavior."

Indeed, India has made it clear that its support for Syria's position is not open ended. Puri conceded that his government's support for Syria's bid for membership on the Human Rights Council might not be appropriate. "The point that needs to be made is that you cannot keep this score of 120 killed every Friday and be on the Human Rights Council," he said, according to Bloomberg.

And Egypt's U.N. ambassador Magid Abdelaziz offered from "friendly advice" to Syria to pull out of the race, according to Bloomberg. An Egyptian official confirmed to Turtle Bay that Cairo had counseled Syria to drop its bid for a human rights seat.

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