Kofi Annan pledged to bring peace when he recently landed in Damascus, but his baggage only delivered an ominous sense of deja vu to Syria's opposition.
Currently surviving and dying in no-man's land, pro-democracy protests find themselves trapped on the military and political battlefields. Six weeks of intense shelling and systematic torture in the Homs district of Baba Amr had killed an estimated 700 people by the time Annan met with Syria's strongman, Bashar al-Assad. With more casualties and many more injuries reported each day, Annan's presence generated inevitable comparisons to the Arab League's failed monitoring mission.
"Syria is ready to make a success of any honest effort to find a solution for the events it is witnessing," state media quoted al-Assad as telling Annan on Saturday.
The former UN Secretary-General, like all world powers, is understandably struggling to halt the flow of blood in Syria, and international actors are rightfully fearful of begetting more violence. Diplomacy also serves a natural function within warfare, but individuals have exploited political tactics throughout recorded history - as al-Assad is ruthlessly demonstrating. Annan attempted to leave Syria with an open mind even though al-Assad preempted the oppositional Syrian National Council (SNC) by declaring, "No political dialogue or political activity can succeed while there are armed terrorist groups operating and spreading chaos and instability."
"Negotiations can never take place between the victim and torturer: Assad and his entourage must step down as a condition before starting any serious negotiations," the SNC responded.
The international community must realize that al-Assad's regime has no interest in negotiating. His dual-track strategy of stalling and killing represents option A and B: crush the revolution before the state implodes, or else weaken the opposition and divide the country as much as possible. Only when he's completely out of options will he bargain for his family's life. Speaking from Geneva, Annan's spokesman informed reporters that he received al-Assad's reply and "was seeking answers" to various questions before addressing the Arab League on Friday. One Western diplomat in New York clarified, "We had always expected there would be obfuscation, there would be delay, there would be questions."
However multiple news sources have reported that the Obama administration considers al-Assad's latest response to be unacceptable. Even Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, hedged his rhetoric by admitting, “Regrettably, he hasn’t always followed our advice in his activities. He has approved useful laws reviving the system and making it more pluralistic. But it has been done after a long delay, and the proposals about launching a dialogue also have been slow to come. Meanwhile, the armed confrontation is expanding and its inertia may sweep and engulf all."
Syrian military forces are currently speaking for their boss by waging a relentless battle against revolutionary cells. The northern hotbed of Idlib and the southern enclave of Deraa are facing down the same war machine that reduced Homs to rubble, and dozens of casualties have been reported since Annan left the country. This tragic narrative is repeating the Arab League's previous attempt to halt the violence; cooperating with al-Assad's regime buys time for his slaughter. On Thursday the UN's humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, said that UN technical experts will soon join another "government-led" mission "to gather information on the overall humanitarian situation and observe first-hand the conditions in various towns and cities."
A Deraa activist going by the name Mohamed told Reuters, "We think that foreign powers are giving another period of grace to Assad that is allowing him to exterminate his people and their revolt."
Dreading the unintended consequences of military intervention (especially during an election year), the Obama administration has relied on several arguments to advance a political resolution: Syria's opposition is too weak and disorganized to arm, al-Qaeda elements may be crossing over from Iraq and Assad loyalists are becoming more confident in their entrenched position. France's Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, recently told France-Culture radio, "The Syrian people are deeply divided, and if we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we would make a civil war among Christians, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites." These valid concerns pose significant restraints on an intervention mission, but they have also spawned a vicious self-fulfilling prophesy that is likely to push Syria into open civil war. In order to prevent this scenario and contain any regional spillover, Washington and Moscow remain deceptively united behind an Arab League plan that would transfer power to one of al-Assad's vice presidents.
"We believe that now is the time for all nations, even those who have previously blocked our efforts, to stand behind the humanitarian and political approach spelled out by the Arab League," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday. "The international community should say with one voice — without hesitation or caveat — that the killings of innocent Syrians must stop and a political transition must begin."
Except al-Assad and the bulk of Syria's opposition reject a dialogue with each other, perpetuating a bloody stalemate.
Syrians are confronting the likelihood that their country is veering towards a long war, whether semi-conventional or unconventional. Comparisons with Libya are, as many political an military figures warn, doomed to fail; Al-Assad's military far exceeds Gaddafi's and will mount an effective counterattack to any air raid or ground incursion. Syria's urban population of 23 million is a breeding ground for civilian casualties that would then be manipulated by al-Assad's media. Conventional warfare simply presents a high-risk outcome without the guarantee of his removal, and another strongman could still emerge in his place.
Going down the military spectrum, an insurgency will take years - possibly over a decade - to topple al-Assad's regime and seize control of the government. As the situation stands, the opposition's only genuine hope rests in guerrilla warfare and the completion of the revolutionary process. Self-defense is often unavoidable in urban warfare, but holding territory that can't be held and fighting battles against numerically and technologically forces has inflicted a heavy toll on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and local resistance groups. Mobile warfare - hit and run, ambushes, sabotage, information warfare - should guide all of the opposition's military operations until the balance of power nears a tipping point.
‘‘We’re planning ambushes, which will be painful for Bashar’s army and its allies,’’ said Muneef Al-Zaeem, an FSA spokesman based in Jordan. ‘‘We promise Bashar it will be painful. He will see."
Problematically, guerrilla operations still need advanced arms and logistics equipment to progressively amplify their effectiveness. One FSA coordinator, Ahmad Kassem, pleaded for the international community to, ‘‘Send us money, we’re desperate. Send us weapons. We don’t need fighters. We have excess men who can fight, but we need weapons to protect our land and honor.’’
Arming Syria's opposition, even at moderate levels, chances many risks inherent to warfare. That said, employing political warfare without a complimenting military strategy is unlikely to capitulate al-Assad's regime - especially within weeks or months. The State Department's Victoria Nuland stepped waist deep into this dilemma while justifying the Obama administration's current strategy: "So what we don’t want to see is a prolonged situation that goes on for weeks and months and, perhaps, even longer. We want to see an end to the violence and we want to see a political discussion begin. He is going to go down. Whether it’s a matter of days or a matter of weeks, or whether it is longer, is going to be a question that is, unfortunately, largely a matter of whether he understands that the world is increasingly united against him and will continue to squeeze him until this ends."
The international community should play to the advantages of insurgency instead of choosing between conventional operations and a hollow settlement. This mode of warfare is specifically designed to defeat a superior opponent and should be promoted over Yemen's false "model," which is destabilizing by the day. The latter policy may appear to be the only available option to conventionally-minded capitals, but Western and Gulf states are killing Syrians with their politics and diplomacy.