April 6, 2012

UN, Arab League Encouraging al-Assad To Kill

No side of Syria's revolution has stopped shooting at each other in the six days since the "Friends of Syria" met in Istanbul. Here, more than two weeks after Bashar al-Assad conditionally "agreed" to ceasefire, Kofi Annan would formally accept his "compliance" to a UN-sponsored initiative that aims to establish a political dialogue and humanitarian mission. Ground conditions remained static throughout Annan's negotiations with al-Assad and his foreign allies, and Syria's information sphere continues to overflow with the effects.

On Thursday Annan was forced to concede the impending failure of an initiative based on Yemen's flawed "model."

"All points of the plan are crucial, but one is most urgent: the need for cessation of violence," he told the UN General Council. "Clearly, the violence is still continuing. Alarming levels of casualties and other abuses continue to be reported daily. Military operations in civilian populations have not stopped."

Everyone involved seemed to anticipate this scenario. After telegraphing his moves with the deception of previous "agreements" with the Arab League, Syria's activists and insurgents expected al-Assad's forces to maintain their assault. Some witnesses claim the attacks are becoming more ferocious, with houses being put to the torch and civilians being execute instead of taken prisoner. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon counts himself among those who believe the situation deteriorated from last weekend. Western powers have also voiced their skepticism that al-Assad will comply with Annan's six-point plan, despite the fact that they've encouraged him to sign for months.

"Can we be optimistic?" French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe asked reporters in Paris. "I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us."

This flood of negativity became the center of Syria's attention during Thursday's briefing at the State Department. Possibly the most independent-minded journalist operating in the press corp, the AP's Matthew Lee observed that, "in listening to the speeches at the UN, it seems like everyone’s as pessimistic as ever." Lee asked spokesman Mark Toner, "realistically, what hope does the U.S. have that Assad is going to abide by this deadline?" leading Toner to reply, "it’s not surprising; certainly discouraging."

"It is clear that the Assad regime appears to be using this window to continue to carry out its horrible assault on the Syrian people."

The overriding question, if Western and Gulf powers aren't surprised by al-Assad's response, is why the UNSC attempted another futile diplomatic mission. Part of this strategy intends to establish the conditions of just war theory, specifically the use of force as the last resort. International powers still hope to avert a large-scale civil war in the region, but offering a proposal that is doomed to fail advances the legitimacy of intervention. Militarily, foreign powers need to buy time as they study a varied opposition and plan contingencies for a war that is expected to dwarf Libya's intervention. Yet the lack of punitive actions is encouraging al-Assad to accelerate his crackdown, in turn enlarging the war and its potential spillover.

A skeptical Lee presses Toner to expand on his statement that, if al-Assad doesn't comply by April 10th, "then we’re going to be consulting with the Security Council on next steps." Unsatisfied with this initial response, Lee double-checks his questions and triggers a debate that exposes the weaknesses behind the international community's semi-united front.
QUESTION: Was the U.S. satisfied with the strength of the presidential statement coming out of the Security Council? I mean, it’s urging them; it’s not – it didn’t have any demands in it.

MR. TONER: Well, look, it’s very clear what Assad needs to do. So it was a strong message of unity on this issue. And I don’t think it’s a message that we can convey enough to Assad and his regime that time is running out. They need to comply with the April 10th deadline.

QUESTION: Mark, I just want to make sure I got this right. You said that if Assad doesn’t comply by the April 10th deadline, the U.S. – you guys and your allies are going to consult –

MR. TONER: We’re going to consult on next steps, yeah.

QUESTION: I’m sure he’s shaking in his boots. That’s really what the “or else” is? You do this or else we’re going to consult?

MR. TONER: Matt, our approach to Syria is on several fronts. We have the Friends of Syria group that, as you saw over the weekend, took additional steps to provide support to the opposition, as well as increase humanitarian assistance to people in need in Syria. We’ve got this sanctions group that’s look at how to more effectively implement sanctions against Assad. We’re – this is something we’re working on multiple fronts. We’re going to continue to use the UN where we believe it’s going to be effective. We’re going to go back and consult on next steps.

QUESTION: Why is not an accurate assessment – because I’m sure you’ll say it’s not an accurate assessment – that there is no reward for compliance and there’s no punishment for non-compliance? How does that work?

MR. TONER: Punishment for noncompliance – the punishment for non-compliance --

QUESTION: Yes. The punishment is that you’re going to consult.

MR. TONER: The punishment for noncompliance is going to be increased pressure on Assad, on his regime, and a clear message to those around him that they’re on the wrong side of history.

QUESTION: So what kind of strong consequences Secretary Clinton talk about if he doesn’t --

MR. TONER: I think I just talked about that. We’ve – this is not just about the Security Council, just about the UN. We’ve said before that we’re going to consult with the Security Council on next steps when appropriate. But we’re also applying pressure through sanctions, political pressure through the Friends of Syria group.
The State Department's response swims in two areas: the need to maintain a political high ground and the element of military surprise. However the threat of force must be publicized if the international community intends to back al-Assad into submission through credible deterrence. Syria's strongman has thrived on the present unwillingness to engage militarily, and bet his regime on the ability to crush the opposition before sanctions take a fatal toll. He presumably believes that Syria can survive in relative isolation, just like Iran, so long as he sufficiently divides the country.

Over the weekend, the Trench observed that the pressure to act had fallen squarely on Western and Gulf powers. All available evidence suggests that April 10th will unfold the same as the day before and day after. Solutions to a multifaceted conflict remain obscured by its many demands, but the international community's current strategy is throwing gas on Syria's fire.

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