Balance-of-power geopolitics alive and well

Turkey has raised the stakes on Syria by reminding Nato countries of their treaty responsibilities, but no country or group is willing to act first, writes Anne-Marie Slaughter

A longer-term resolution of the Syrian crisis depends as much on Turkey and the Arab League as it does on the US, Europe, and Russia.

THE conventional wisdom last week on whether Syria would comply with former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan was that it was up to Russia.

We were reverting to Cold War politics, in which the West was unwilling to use force and Russia was willing to keep arming and supporting its client. Thus, Russia held the trump card: The choice of how much pressure it was willing to put on Syrian president Bashar al Assad to comply with the plan.

If this view were correct, Iran would surely be holding an equally powerful hand. Annan, after all, travelled to Tehran as well. Traditional balance-of-power geopolitics, it seems, is alive and well.

But this is at best a partial view that obscures as much as it reveals. In particular, it misses the crucial and growing importance of regional politics and institutions.

A longer-term resolution of the Syrian crisis depends as much on Turkey and the Arab League as it does on the US, Europe, and Russia. Consider what else happened last week: Turkey’s government made clear it would turn to new measures if Annan’s plan did not produce results.

Turkish officials have been issuing similar proclamations for months, but now Syrian troops have fired into Turkey, chasing Free Syrian Army rebels who fled across the border, while the number of Syrian civilian refugees has increased sharply. Last week, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the stakes dramatically with talk of having “many options”, and adding: “Also, Nato has responsibilities to do with Turkey’s borders, according to Article 5”.

Article 5 of the Nato treaty stipulates that an attack on one Nato member is to be considered an attack on all, and that all will come to the member’s aid. Of course, other Nato members could disagree that Syria has in fact attacked Turkey, but if Turkey were to invoke Article 5, a refusal to offer assistance could have unpleasant consequences for the whole alliance.

Assad knows it will be impossible to avoid further border incidents unless he is prepared to allow the Free Syrian Army to use Turkey as a safe zone.

The significance of Article 5 is that if a credible case can be made that Turkey and its allies are acting in self-defence, they do not need to seek the UN Security Council’s approval.

The deeper point here is that regional organisations, including Nato, provide the first level of legality and legitimacy required for a successful use of force. The US would not have supported intervention in Libya if the Arab League had not supported a no-fly zone and been willing to go to the UN on that basis.

Indeed, assuming Assad does not start bulldozing entire cities, I cannot imagine any circumstances under which the US would support even limited military intervention in Syria without public approval by the Arab League and Turkey. That is why we have seen a game of “after you” with respect to Syria, with the Turks saying they need Western support, the US saying it needs regional support, and both saying they need UN support.

While Annan has been trying his diplomatic best to resolve Syria’s crisis, upheavals in Senegal, Mali, Malawi, and Guinea-Bissau have been swiftly addressed by other regional powers. In particular, the African Union has acted repeatedly in enforcing the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance.

In Senegal, simmering violence accompanied recent elections in which president Abdoulaye Wade was allowed to stand for an unprecedented third term. The first round forced Wade into a run-off with Macky Sall, at which point the African Union sent an elections observer mission, drawn from 18 African countries, to assess whether the elections were legal.

We cannot be sure what impact the mission had on Wade’s ultimate decision to concede defeat to Sall, but knowing the region was watching must have focused his mind.

The situation in Mali is more complicated, for it involves an ongoing secessionist movement, as well as a coup on Mar 21. But, after the coup the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), backed by the UN, suspended Mali’s membership in the AU, imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on the country, and placed travel restrictions on coup leaders. Just over two weeks later, ECOWAS announced it had reached an agreement with the coup leaders to return the government to civilian rule in exchange for lifting the sanctions.

Those who interpret all moves on the international stage in terms of states’ eternal jockeying for power and prestige will never lack for evidence. The way in which the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is playing out in Syria is a prominent example. But countries’ desire to stop mass murder in their neighbourhood, or to enforce regional norms, has its own force. Increasingly, when a regional institution will not act, powers from outside the region find it difficult to intervene. And when a region does unite on a course of action, intervention by outside powers becomes either less necessary or more effective.

* Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US state department (2009-2011), is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012

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