April 25, 2012

How Long Will Syria's Pseudo Ceasefire Hold?

Considering the near-term and potential long-term futility of "his" plan, Kofi Annan should almost be happy that Syria's pseudo-ceasefire has lasted as long as it has. For two weeks Bashar al-Assad's forces have limited their crackdown to intimidation and selective violence, dropping their high intensity to seemingly tolerable levels. "Taken as a whole," Annan said on Tuesday, "the level of violence has decreased" since April 12th's deadline went into effect. "This, however, does not cover the spike in violence reported yesterday," he continued, referring to nationwide attacks on oppositional territory. The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) estimated that 50 of the 80 deaths recorded on Monday came from Hama's war zone. 

More casualties followed on Tuesday and Wednesday, joining those already killed in the last two weeks and the thousands who perished during Annan's month-long negotiations with al-Bashar. Now even he is forced to concede a "bleak" situation.

The fundamental question before and after April 12th remains unchanged: how will al-Bashar's foreign opponents respond when their ceasefire is partially implemented, or when it sinks into a new cycle of violence. Some capitals are complicating an analysis of their coordination by speaking more forcefully than others. Saudi Arabia and France in particular have not backed away from their offensive-minded rhetoric, with President Nicolas Sarkozy expressing his desire "to strengthen the Arab countries... around Syria who want to act." For a variety of reasons - indecision, fear of endangering Syria's opposition, the consequences of regional warfare - the Obama administration has attempted to keep its cards tucked out of view. U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially refused to comment on the possibility of failure, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer that she doesn't "think it's useful to do anything other than focus on the six points of the plan."

More to the point, White House spokesman Jay Carney told inquiring reporters, "we are not prepared to announce an additional step or a new step to be taken either by the United States, by "Friends of Syria," or the United Nations Security Council at this time." However Carney finished by telling his audience, "you can be sure that we are discussing next steps and options with our allies and partners," and Clinton has since softened her position in response to Syria's fallout. Explaining that Washington must "keep Assad off balance by leaving options on the table,'' the Secretary urged international powers "to continue to work and move toward a Security Council authorization so that we have the authority to proceed when the times are right."

"We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan."

So what is about to transpire in Syria? Although the scale of violence and number of casualties has dropped significantly from February and March, both sides of the conflict are angling towards their own ends rather than a common outcome. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently told reporters that al-Bashar's partial implementation "does not amount yet to the clear signal expected from the Syrian authorities," but his signal is crystal clear. Many Western officials even acknowledged that al-Bashar is likely stalling for more time, a reality that is now certain. He never intended to cease all of his fire, just a portion of his guns, and a breakdown in all six points appears inevitable.

"We have credible reports that when they leave, the exchanges start again, that these people who approach the observers may be approached by the Syrian security forces or the Syrian Army or even worse, perhaps killed, and this is totally unacceptable,” Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told United Nations television.

The other five points - the right to protest, UN monitors, humanitarian corridors, media access and political dialogue - have barely moved since April 12th. Unable to avoid the presence of UN monitors, al-Bashar's regime is employing the same tactics used to disrupt the Arab League's mission. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem would comply with the UN's recommended figure of 300 after suggesting 250, an irrelevant concession given Syria's urgent demands. He also ruled out the possibility of aircraft operating independently in Syria airspace, saying "we have the capabilities in our air force to carry this out." UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous expects 100 observers to land within a month, far quicker than most missions, but this time-gap is already adding to Syria's friction.

One local activist in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen retold a common scene: "We started walking with the observers thinking that they'd protect us, but then the Shabiha (Ghosts) started shooting at us, even when the observers' cars were at the front of the march. Once the committee was gone, there was no one else to see what they were doing." Annan's joint Arab League-UN plan also calls for accelerating "the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons," but UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that "no significant release of detainees" has taken place. The same goes for media access and the state of negotiations between al-Bashar and Syria's revolutionaries - which rest at zero and may be impossible to lift off the ground. In their attempt to compromise with Moscow and Beijing, Western and Gukf powers continue to support an "inclusive national dialogue" with a murderous, untrustworthy regime. They may hope that negotiations can eventually evict al-Bashar's regime through a "transitional period," but Syrian officials claim that he will only step down if the people vote him out of office in 2014.

Having already employed this strategy in Yemen and Bahrain's counterrevolutions, Washington should be intimately aware that "dialogue" functions as a stalling/salvage mechanism for decayed governments Conversely, any Western or Arab calls for al-Assad to resign are immediately reflected back as a breach of their own initiative. This hedged position could represent the "least bad" option available to foreign powers (an uncertain possibility), but its polarizing effects are extending the conflict's time-line.

"As a matter of principle, we believe that the U.N. Security Council is not about regime change," Russia's UN Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Monday. "We believe that ... if there is crisis in a country, the role of the international community should be to help the parties involved to find a political, peaceful way out of this crisis."

In the event that Annan's plan formally collapses, the next phase leans towards the dual establishment of an arms embargo and humanitarian corridors. Although U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ruled out an existing plan to conduct air operations or land "boots on the ground," secured pathways into southern Turkey will allow foreign powers to deploy their forces on humanitarian grounds. European and Gulf states in particular view these corridors as the "solution," but they will likely form the initial platform to scale up a wider campaign. This scenario would begin by arming Syria's revolutionaries and, for better or worse, accelerate the organization of a long-term insurgency. A large section of Syria's opposition is expecting such a response from the international community.

General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest ranking defector thus far, is hastily calling for "the formation of a military alliance of countries friendly to the Syrian people, without UN Security Council approval, to carry out surgical strikes on key installations of the regime."

On Monday President Barack Obama authorized new sanctions against the Syrian government to obstruct the technological tracking of dissidents. "It's one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come: the end of the Assad regime." Sadly this day is far from guaranteed by the international community's current strategy, and years will be needed to organize an insurgency capable of eroding al-Bashar's politico-military network. Despite assurances that America and its allies possess the means to act, the lack of credible force has led al-Bashar to believe that he can outlast the opposition - and turn the region into a inferno if Western and Gulf states intervene. Whatever course they decide on, they must alter the direction of their existing trajectory in order to help break Syria's stalemate.

At some point they must abandon a political process that has been twisted into loops, and they must be prepared to act when Annan's ceasefire officially dissolves into another pool of blood

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