April 9, 2012

Forecasting After Annan's Syrian Plan Implodes

The inevitable diplomatic breakdown between Bashar al-Assad's regime and international powers was already tumbling down a confrontational path when Monday morning dawned. Now al-Assad's foreign opponents have been struck with a new bolt of urgency after two murky clashes along the Syrian border.

According to one version of events, revolutionary insurgents ambushed Syrian forces near Salama village before fleeing across the Turkish border. Syrian troops returned fire as the surviving insurgents dashed towards the Oncupinar refugee camp, taking the lives of several rebels and refugees in the process. Another version contends that Syrian insurgents were attempting to open a humanitarian corridor when they were ambushed; one anonymous official from Turkey's Foreign Ministry said a group of refugees came under attack after linking up with Turkish personnel.

Separately, plain-clothed gunmen launched an hours-long assault on a Lebanese media team in Wadi Khaled. Ali Shaaban, a cameraman for al-Jadeed TV, was killed in a hail of gunfire that Syrian state media attributed to repeated "terrorist" infiltrations. The government claims that a border post came under just as the journalists were moving through the area.

The parallel between Oncupinar and Wadi Khaled tragically illustrates Syria's situation in blood. With both sides unable to entangle themselves from the country's numerous front lines, al-Assad's regime and the many parts that form Syria's armed opposition continue to hold each other responsible for escalating the conflict. Street militias and the nominal commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Raid al Assad, say they are willing to ceasefire but refuse to lay down their arms as the regime demands. al-Assad has manipulated this power equation throughout his negotiations with the Arab League and United Nations, trapping and baiting the opposition with brutal assault waves. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 84 deaths on Monday alone, while al Assad counted over 1,000 casualties in the last two weeks.

The areas around Homs, Hama and Idlib remain open war zones.

"I am shocked by reports of a surge of violence and atrocities in several towns and villages in Syria, resulting in alarming levels of casualties, refugees and displaced persons, in violation of assurances given to me," Kofi Annan, the UN's newly-installed point man, said on Sunday. "As we get closer to the Tuesday 10 April deadline, I remind the Syrian government of the need for full implementation of its commitments and stress that the present escalation of violence is unacceptable."

Many Syrians and observers are not shocked by al-Assad's actions, only tormented by the vast damage and loss of life inflicted on Syrians of all ethnicities. Few actors within Syria's National Council (SNC) expected Annan's six-point initiative to end differently than the Arab League's monitoring mission, which collapsed under its own weight in January. They anticipated the ferocity that accompanies al-Assad's "compliance" with international demands. The SNC has kept a political branch extended to the international community in order to maintain Syria's moral high ground, but the more vocal FSA is known to speak its collective mind.

"When the regime asks Kofi Annan for written guarantees that we will drop our weapons it is actually mocking the United Nations," remarked Colonel Qassem Saad al-Deen, spokesman for the FSA's joint-command. "This is a joke."

Despite a low probability of success, Western and Gulf capitals continue to pursue a negotiated settlement to an intense asymmetric conflict. This strategy has been adopted due to the absence of a "Plan B," and no one is sure how long al-Assad's opponents are willing to haggle with his allies. Washington, European states, Ankara and Riyadh have yet to concede the impossibility of a compromise with Moscow and Beijing. Perhaps al-Assad's own "friends" will eventually switch sides to preserve their influence in the country, but this theory has only escalated Syria's conflict to the present day. Moscow and Beijing still refuse to budge from their "solution": "a political settlement process."

"Attempts to force a solution on Syria from outside will lead only to an escalation of tension," Gennady Gatilov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, warned foreign powers. "Everything must follow from respect for Syria's sovereignty, and violence must be stopped."

Up until now Moscow's calculated warnings to al-Assad, along with the potential scale of military intervention, has contained U.S. policy to the diplomatic level. Calls to fully arm the FSA have only translated into logistics equipment. The Obama administration also refuses to confront the reality of al-Assad's defiance until Tuesday's deadline passes, suggesting that another round of political warfare will preempt an organized military campaign. Repeatedly pressed on Washington's future course of action, the State Department's Victoria Nuland told a skeptical press corps that Annan would propose his next steps on Tuesday "and take it from there." The White House's Jay Carney didn't "want to get ahead of that deadline or Mr. Annan’s assessment" either, saying "there will be discussions to decide what should happen next." Nuland was specifically asked whether the administration takes "any kind of responsibility for your choice of policy on the Annan plan?"

"The fact that it hasn’t worked yet," she responded, "doesn’t change the fact that having the international community increasingly united and increasingly willing to pressure Assad will not eventually bring him down. He will go down."

Nuland has made similar comments before, except al-Assad won't be going down any time soon without delivering material support to the opposition. Even a well-trained and equipped insurgency could need years to destroy his regime's structure. Whether the Obama administration wants to hide behind Annan's neutrality or refuses to militarily intervene in Syri (both factors are active), UN ambassador Susan Rice told reporters that she still hopes a diplomatic approach is "possible." Yet she also claimed that Annan's proposal is the last of its kind. This scenario is impossible to verify, but the Turkish and Lebanese attacks have injected additional urgency behind the push for humanitarian corridors.

Such a move would be perceived as a direct act of war and end the initial debate over military intervention in Syria. The international community should prepare for this outcome regardless of the coming days, because any fresh debate around a political solution will trend towards the same outcome: protracted insurgency.

1 comment:

  1. Assad knows foreign intervention is all but impossible now. As tragic as the day to day events are, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he would be a fool to do other than what he is doing. His father would have been more ruthless still. The innocent and the refugees will pick up the tab of tragedy as ever.