Turkey's non-starter call for a humanitarian safe zone inside Syria offers the clearest sign yet that diplomacy to end the bloodshed in the most violent uprising of the Arab Spring is at a dead end.
Any new push by the international community to stop the killing is likely to remain on hold until the new U.N. chief envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, gets his feet on the ground and — more importantly — until the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other prominent Republicans have called for arming Syrian rebels, a step critics fear would only escalate the violence without necessarily bringing a quick end to a more than 17-month conflict that activists say has killed more than 20,000 people.
In the meantime, countries in the region — Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iraq — will be scrambling to contain the violence and keep the conflict from spilling across their borders.
A desire to contain the conflict was in large measure behind Turkey’s appeal Thursday to the U.N. Security Council to establish a safe zone for civilians in parts of northern Syria under nominal rebel control.
That would enable the Turks to cut off the flow of refugees across their border. About 80,000 Syrians have already fled into Turkey, and hostility to the presence of so many foreigners is rising among Turks living in Antakya and other border communities.
But the Turkish proposal sank like a stone. The council meeting ended without even a non-binding statement of support, much less a binding resolution.
A frustrated Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the council that he’d come to New York in hopes the members would take “long overdue steps” to alleviate the suffering and establish camps inside Syria for those forced to flee their homes.
“Apparently, I was wrong about my expectations,” Davutoglu said.
Like so many other proposals to end the fighting, the Turkish appeal was all but dead on arrival, given the risks of creating such a zone and the hostility of veto-wielding Russia and China to any proposal that is not accepted by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Russians and the Chinese have already vetoed three Western-backed council resolutions that would threaten Assad’s government with international sanctions. Assad rejected the idea of a safe zone in a television interview this week.
Russia and China have long made clear they will not go along with a repeat of last year’s experience in Libya, when the U.S. and its European allies used a resolution to protect civilians to launch months of attacks that ended with the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
Even if some legal way could be found to get around the Security Council obstacle, there is no sign the U.S. or its major European partners have the stomach to repeat the Libya operation at a time when cash-strapped governments are trying to extricate from Afghanistan and the U.S. is focused on an election in about two months.
Establishing a safe zone in Syria amounts to entering the territory of a sovereign country to offer protection to civilians, many who are sympathetic to the rebels.
Without a guarantee from Assad that he would not attack the zone, foreign governments would have to assume responsibility for protecting civilians there — through troops on the ground and through preventing Syrian attack aircraft from flying over the territory.
Meanwhile, the West is running out of options besides trying to do more to care for the tens of thousands of refugees.
With Syrian diplomacy all but dead, the Obama administration is focusing on political transition and helping the rebels defeat the Syrian regime. Washington has increased its humanitarian aid to $74 million and its “nonlethal” communications assistance to $25 million.
The administration also has eased restrictions for rebel fundraising in the United States. Most of the weapons used by the rebels are believed to be purchased inside and outside Syria with money from supporters abroad, mostly in the Gulf states.
The U.S. has been working politically with Syrian exiles who drew up a transition plan for governing the country if the Assad regime collapses. The plan was unveiled this week in Berlin.
France has promised to recognize a Syrian provisional government if the opposition can set aside its internal differences — which it has been unable to accomplish.
None of those proposals would have an immediate effect in curbing the bloodshed.
Faced with bleak prospects, the new U.N. envoy, Brahimi, says he plans to consult key players in New York after officially assuming his duties Saturday. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, quit in frustration this month after achieving little.
Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. mediator, will likely explore possibilities of reviving a transitional plan drawn up by Annan and agreed to by both the United States and Russia after a conference in Geneva in June.
The document aimed at establishing an interim government of people chosen by both the Assad regime and the opposition. Each would be able to veto candidates.
The arrangement was rejected immediately by many in the Syrian opposition.