April 19th, 2012
12:33 PM ET

Slaughter: Mind the neighbors

Editor's Note: 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. For more from Slaughter, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Anne-Marie Slaughter.

By Anne-Marie SlaughterProject Syndicate

The conventional wisdom last week on whether Syria would comply with former United Nations 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, traveled 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 United States, Europe, and Russia. Consider what else happened last week: Turkey’s government made clear that it would turn to new measures if Annan’s plan does 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 Erdoğan raised the stakes dramatically with talk of having “many options,” and by 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 alliance as a whole. And Assad knows full well that 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-defense, they do not need to seek the UN Security Council’s approval. That makes Erdoğan’s suggestion a game-changer, forcing Assad to reckon with the prospect of a de facto militarily-enforced safe zone for the civilian opposition.

The deeper point here is that regional organizations, 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 that 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 that they need Western support, the US saying that it needs regional support, and both saying that they need UN support.

Looking beyond the Middle East, Africa provides the best evidence for a geopolitics based as much on regional powers and institutions as on traditional great powers. 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 (AU) has acted repeatedly in the name of 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 AU promptly sent an Elections Observer Mission, drawn from 18 African countries, to assess whether the elections were legal and the results “reflected the will of the Senegalese people.” We cannot be sure what impact the mission had on Wade’s ultimate decision to concede defeat to Sall, but knowing that 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 March 21. But, after the coup the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), backed by the UN, immediately 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 that it had reached an agreement with the coup leaders to return the government to civilian rule in exchange for lifting the sanctions.

Likewise, AU President Jean Ping condemned a coup in Guinea-Bissau in early April immediately and in the strongest terms.

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 neighborhood, 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.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Anne-Marie Slaughter.

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Topics: Global • Syria

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. ✠ RZ ✠

    I cannot recall how many north American and European cities I've been to that have a "China Town" . Definitely a few. But do China's big cities have a reciprocal set up. Like "America Town" ? "UK Town" ? "German Town" ? "Canada Town", ? "France Town" and so on.

    April 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      That is a very interesting point.

      April 19, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  2. JAL

    This Syrian strife is a major quantum threshold that must be crossed without so much fear. Are we an honorable species? Do we help our fellow man? I see this lack of progress as a root-cause of many failures to come.

    April 19, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The "lack of progress" you mentioned is the gradual process of taking step by step to deal with the Syrian crisis. The international community has to figure out how to apply pressure on a regime that is fighting for its survival and has shown it will stop at nothing to stay in power and how to secure the fragile peace in a post-Assad Syria .

      April 20, 2012 at 6:55 am | Reply
      • JAL

        One of the goals of the Arab Spring is to create regime change in Iran, though Iran is not an Arab country. Moreover, the center of gravity, in the middle east, will move away from Iran as its goal. The prospects of the Iranian people rising up are decaying each and every day that there is this "stalemate" in Syria, with thousands dead. Heck, if I was an Iranian, the protests in Syria are beginning to look like a pipe dream. The Iranian govt is about 4x more brutal.

        April 20, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Anne-Marie oversaw the intricacies of the Syrian crisis, when she said "upheavals in Senegal, Mali, Malawi, and Guinea-Bissau have been swiftly addressed by other regional powers". True, but the AU and the ECOWAS didn't have to deal with sectarian tensions as well as powerful actors. Turkey and the Gulf Staates are engaged in a regime-to-regime vendetta with Damascus, Iran is Syria's staunchest ally and dosen't want to lose Assad. Russia is pragmatic enough to realise that Assad can't simply crush dissent by force and hang on to power, but it wants to play the unique role as a midwife to political transition in Syria, to secure its future role in the country.

    April 20, 2012 at 6:43 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Anne-Marie's "Mind the neighbours". Yes, Syria and Turkey had been very good neighbours. Erdogan and Assad were on friendly terms. But ever since the uprising in Syria, Turkey has allowed Syrian refugees and military defectors to take refuge on its soil, and Syria's political opposition has used Turkey as a place to meet and organise. Quid pro quo Assad grants the Kurdish PKK sanctuary and encourages its recent attacks on Turkey, which is vulnerable to the manipulation of its large Kurdish minority.

    April 20, 2012 at 7:14 am | Reply
  5. iraqi nori al haleki is criminal thug and a thief

    وردتنا معلومات من احد منتسبي الاستخبارات مفادها ما يلي :

    قامت مجموعه من مهربي المخدرات تابعين الى منظمة " بدر" يرأسة هادي العامري بادخال ( ثمانيه ونصف ) طن من المخدرات ( حشيشه ) من ايران وعبر مدينة البصره ثم الى الناصريه لغرض تهريبها الى المملكه العربيه السعوديه وجزء من الكميه تذهب الى محافظات الوسط ( كربلاء – النجف – الديوانيه – بابل ) لبيعها في هذه المدن

    تمكنت مفارز الاستخبارات في مدينة الناصريه من القاء القبض على المخدرات والمهربين وفورا تحرك المهربين للاتصال باللواء ( صباح الفتلاوي ) قائد شرطة ذي قار وتم الاتفاق معه على تسوية القضيه وعلى الشكل التالي ( بعد فحص كمية المخدرات وجدت انها حشيشه مغشوشه ) مقابل ( ٦٠ ) الف دولار تسلمها اللواء صباح من المهربين بغية اطلاق سراحهم من السجن وتسليم المخدرات ( المغشوشه ) ؟؟؟

    ارسلت الاستخبارات معلومات الى وزارة الداخليه حول كمية المخدرات وتفاصيل الاتفاق الذي تم ما بين اللواء صباح الفتلاوي والمهربين تم الاتصال من قبل وزير الداخلية وكالة " عدنان الاسدي " برئيس الوزراء نوري المالكي " القائد العام للقوات المسلحه واعلمه بتفاصيل القضيه وكان جواب المالكي لوكيله عدنان الاتي : ( صباح الفتلاوي" ابنه " اكتفي بنقله الى بغداد اما المهربين وهم من ( منظمة بدر) امر المالكي باطلاق سراحهم مخاطبا وكيل وزير الداخليه ( تعرف ذوله من جماعة " هادي العامري " ( حزام ظهرنه ) ..

    مع العرض ان المنظمه نشرت معلومات سابقه عن الخلاف الذي نشب بين اللواء صباح الفتلاوي شقيق ( لهلوبة المالكي ) بسبب قيام احد مرافقي " صباح " بشفط ( 80 ) الف دولار ارسلها بيده صباح الى اهله في محافظة بابل وهي مبالغ رشى المخدرات ولم يسترجعها له وهدده بكشف الاموال الطائله التي جناها شقيق حنان من تهريب المخدرات .

    April 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Reply

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