At the G-8 summit in Deauville on Thursday and Friday this week, the Arab Spring is on the agenda. The specific questions to be discussed, among many others, are what to do about the Libyan war and how to deal with Syria’s Bashar-al-Assad’s continuing violent suppression of popular protests.
As background to the discussions, it may be useful for us observers to keep in mind the essential differences between the Libyan and the Syrian situations.
The first reason why the international community has so far not taken any decisive action against Syria, unlike that against Libya, is military. By March 17, when the Security Council authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, in keeping with the U.N.’s “responsibility to protect,” Gaddafi had lost to the rebels more than a third of his territory. Moreover, his military forces are not in the same league as the Syrians’, with their Russian fighter planes and rockets. Without American cooperation, no military action against Syria is conceivable, and clearly no such cooperation is in the cards.
The second reason is political. There is fear of destabilization, on many levels. The Assad regime has close relations with Iran. Weakening it would indirectly weaken Iran’s rulers, a highly desirable objective. But not for the Saudis who consider the regime a counter-weight to Teheran’s, especially now that Egypt is not what it was. The Saudis were aghast when Obama abandoned Mubarak.
And then there is Bahrain. Obama may be highly displeased that the Saudis are helping the autocrats of Bahrain suppress their protesters. But he knows that Bahrain is an important naval base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which guards the Persian Gulf. Nearly two thirds of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and forty-five percent of the world’s natural gas reserves are in the Gulf region. This may temper Obama’s displeasure. Stability has its virtues.
The Turks are concerned that the Kurdish minority in Syria’s north may cause them trouble if the Assad regime is weakened or removed. And the Israelis are worried that an Islamic successor to the secular Assad may undo years of hard work trying to come to some sort of understanding with Damascus. On the other hand, Israel would welcome any move that would weaken Hezbollah and Hamas, which are supported by Syria. Russia is a traditional ally of Syria and would no doubt veto any U.S. resolution against the regime, and the autocratic Chinese see no reason to object to autocracies elsewhere.
No doubt the G-8 will be aware of Obama’s assurance to the people of the Middle East last Thursday: “If you take the risks that reform entails, you will receive the full support of the United States.” But he also added: “There will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision.”
It is safe to predict that the G-8 in Deauville will be as pragmatic in these matters as the President of the United States.