April 3, 2012

Countdown To Syria's Artificial Deadline

On Monday the "Friends of Syria" - more specifically, at this point, the friends of Syria's anti-government movement - tried to play hardball with a man that has slaughtered thousands of people over the 12 months. Foreign powers spent over half of those months calling for an immediate ceasefire of Bashar al-Assad's crackdown, and more than 150 days have been consumed by negotiations with his regime. Now, after repeatedly watching their diplomatic missions fail and undermine their credibility, Western and Gulf powers have given al-Assad 10 days to comply with an initiative first put forth in November.

"Kofi Annan has given us a plan to begin resolving this crisis," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told her audience in Istanbul. "Bashar al-Assad has, so far, refused to honor his pledge. There is no more time for excuses or delays. This is a moment of truth. And the United States is committed to this effort. We think the communique coming out of the meeting today is a very important document, and we commend it to all of you. It represents a considerable advance forward by the international community as represented by the more than 80 nations that attended here today."

Because of the overall situation and this very pledge, the pressure to deliver rests on these 83 actors when al-Assad's forces ignore their deadline to withdraw. Syrian activist groups have reported a "normal" volume of military incidents in separate parts of the country, with the UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights recording 34 casualties (including 16 unarmed civilians) on Monday. One activist who goes by the name of Fadi al-Yassin also reported an ominous trend: "The regime forces have pretty much stopped arresting people. They either kill them right away or keep them for one day to get information and then kill them."

Amid the disintegration of the Arab League's monitoring mission, a similar wave of death crashed into Syria's revolutionaries when Moscow and Beijing vetoed a UNSC proposal on February 3rd. They have watched in terror as the regime's forces island-hop through oppositional territory, unable stop the reality that al-Assad is racing against the UNSC's next moves. The death toll in Homs alone is estimated above 700. Syrians have good reason to suspect that the same process is underway again - the next nine days could bring all-out war - and Western officials are already confronting this reality as they try to salvage Annan's proposal.

"Let me say that from the US point of view," said Susan Rice, Washington's ambassador to the UN, "and I think the point of view of many member states, what we have seen since April 1 is not encouraging. Should the government of Syria use this window, rather than to de-escalate, to intensify the violence, it will be most unfortunate and it will be certainly our view that the Security Council will need to respond to that failure in a very urgent and serious way."

Moscow and Beijing are hoping to fit al-Assad with a silencer before another "response" from the UNSC, leading Russia's Foreign Minister to pressure al-Assad into complying with Annan's ceasefire. Sergey Lavrov's public insistence that "the Syrian government must take the first step" has been attributed to Moscow's increasing frustration with al-Assad, but Moscow remains a staunch ally. The Russians and Chinese are only irritated by his refusal to accept Annan's generous terms, which could savage the regime and allow the two capitals to manipulate a transitional period. This potential to avoid total war and expand influence also entices Western and Gulf powers into compromising with their Eastern counterparts. Although Clinton reiterated the Obama administration's claim that al-Assad has lost legitimacy - that he "must go" - the Arab League's proposal was weakened by the latest round of dialogue with Annan. The international community still prefers that Syria's revolutionaries negotiate al-Assad out of power after he has killed so many of them.

"No-one should allow this regime to feel at ease or to feel stronger by giving them a longer maneuvering area," SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said during his Monday address. "It's enough that the international community has flirted with the regime in Syria. Something has to change."

U.S.-Russian "cooperation" enjoys low odds of paying off with al-Assad's compliance. He openly refuses to resign as of this moment, doesn't believe that he's lost legitimacy and is preparing to declare an end to Syria's rebellion. In conjunction with his ongoing military offensive, the regime also launched a new propaganda offensive to justify the looming collapse of Annan's six-point initiative. Speaking to reporters outside the Security Council on Monday, Syrian ambassador Bashar Jaafari said, "The Syrian government is committed but we are expecting Mr. Kofi Annan and some parties in the Security Council also to get the same kind of commitments from the (opposition). A plan wouldn't be successful unless everybody is committed."

On top of blaming the opposition for continuing their resistance in the face of government assaults, the "Friends of Syria" will function as al-Assad's second excuse to keep firing. Dubbing Istanbul's conference as a "violation and contradiction of Kofi Annan's mission," Jaafari turned the diplomat against his handlers by expecting the international community to "undermine his mission." He also singled out Saudi Arabia and Turkey for openly expressing the "duty" to arm Syria's revolutionaries, creating another excuse to void Annan's proposal. Lavrov would later joined Jaafari when he rejected a 10-day deadline to ceasefire, believing that "such an approach is dangerous and contradicts Kofi Annan's efforts." Russia's Foreign Minister claims to defend Syrians of all ethnicities and religious affiliation, but its blatant counterrevolution exposes the desire to protect a ruling minority.

Accordingly, Moscow and Beijing will continue to squeeze al-Assad in the likely event that his forces remain in the field, whether disguised or in the open. The real pressure, though, will fall on Western and Gulf powers to deliver on their ultimatum. al-Assad has leveraged a stated intent to avoid military intervention and feeds off any new diplomatic initiative to survive; an indecisive response to his obstructionism will further embolden his crackdown. For now some countries (U.S., EU states) will provide non-lethal equipment for the insurgents, while others (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) will bankroll the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) salaries and weaponized imports. However the international community has yet to unify around a course of action and Clinton punted the decision-making process to each capital.

"We are going to be supporting the SNC with direct assistance in areas such as communications, others are going to be supporting fighters associated with the SNC,” she said. “So countries are making their own decisions.”

While this ad hoc strategy is coordinated behind closed doors, the idea that each country should "make their own decisions" could add to Syria's friction. Leading powers will be soon be pressed for more of everything and a collective response outweighs the actions of isolated blocs. Ghalioun and Syria's revolutionaries are already preparing for a bigger, longer war, viewing conflict as the only possible means to trigger al-Assad downfall.

He's counting on the international community's hesitation to keep his escape hatch open.

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