May 5, 2012

67 Long Days In Syria

At least two factors remain unchanged in Syria since Bashar al-Assad "agreed" to Kofi Annan's UN-sponsored ceasefire on April 12th: daily violence and international indecision. Instead of thousands, hundreds of Syrian lives have been lost during three weeks of conflict as Syrian snipers and artillery continue to patrol oppositional strongholds. The drop in intensity has left Western and Gulf officials to vacillate between cautious optimism and pessimism. Major General Robert Mood, the supervisor of an expanding UN observer mission, told Britain's Sky News on Thursday, "This is not easy and we are seeing - by the action, by explosions, by firing - that the ceasefire is really a shaky one. It's not holding." 

"But what we are also seeing on the ground is that where we have observers present, they have a calming effect and we're also seeing that those operating on the ground, they take advice from our observers." 

The Norwegian general's comments typify the double-sided rhetoric currently employed by al-Assad's international foes. U.S. officials have responded to the regime's systematic violence from a brief script, arguing that al-Assad has failed to abide by Annan's six-point plan but must be given more time to agree - at least until the UN‘s mission expires after its 90-day mandate. Directly before Syrian forces raided Aleppo University, killing seven people (six of them students) and arresting hundreds, the State Department's Mark Toner concluded, "So far, the Syrian regime has taken, really, almost no steps toward fulfilling the core commitments of the Annan proposal." 

"So we want to see an end to the violence," he told reporters, "we want to see the monitors in place, we want to see a robust mission in place that can look at all areas in Syria and provide that kind of presence." 

Due to their higher profile, the raids in Aleppo eclipsed the "normal" level of violence and dealt another blow to the UN's battered time-line. Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the networked Local Coordination Committees (LCC), warned that the regime is now shifting its attention to "campus dissenters" after "hammering farmers, villagers and professionals." The LCC counted 32 deaths on Thursday and 33 on Friday, figures that would push this week's toll near 100 if accurate. Needing to keep pace with the opposition's growing frustration, White House spokesman Jay Carney bent the administration's position when he told reporters, "It is certainly our hope that the Annan plan succeeds. We remain, based on the evidence, highly skeptical of Assad’s willingness to meet the conditions of that plan because he has so clearly failed to meet them thus far." 

However Western and UN officials continue to perch themselves on a dangerous edge that is Syria's semi-ceasefire. Addressing reporters on Friday in Geneva, Annan's spokesperson played up the potential of negotiations "conducted under the radar" between the Syrian government and oppositional military forces. Ahmad Fawzi also split the unstable violence by conceding, "there are days when things are progressing in a satisfactory manner, and there are days where we feel that it's a rough ride." Ultimately, though, "The Annan plan is on track… And a crisis that has been going on for more than a year is not going to be resolved in a day or a week." 

This hedged position is justified by some of Syria's factors and dismantled by others. Anticipating a tougher and costlier war than Libya's intervention, Western and Gulf countries legitimately fear al-Assad's well-equipped military and WMD stockpile. Last month U.S. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that the "main threat of intervention" is Syria's "proliferation or the potential proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. Turkey's Ahmet Uzumcu, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, recently briefed Reuters on this threat, predicting, “If those reports are correct it would really take a lot of resources and efforts to destroy, to eliminate, those stocks."

U.S. military officials expect al-Assad to pass off his cache to Hezbollah or even al-Qaeda - whoever causes the most trouble for America, the EU and their Gulf allies.

al-Assad's international enemies also must confront the possibility of Russian and Iranian intervention, and he would surely mobilize his remaining supporters if outside forces (land or air) violate their territory. Iraq's opposition to a military option could generate friction as well. On top of these contingencies, Western and Gulf states have yet to place their complete trust in the opposition's organization and agenda. In short, Western and Gulf countries are just as desperate to stall for more time as al-Assad's regime. 

Unfortunately the alternate scenario is similarly grim. Too often the U.S. government employs military force as diplomacy in a fourth-generation conflict; now the UN's power equation is failing due to a lack of force. The next 67 days could pass without significant political progress and dump the conflict into another cycle of escalating violence. In the meantime hundreds of Syrians will become casualties of war, thousands could be wounded or arrested, medical aid will flow below maximum levels and basic services will remain scarce. Western and Gulf capitals seek to avoid the fallout of regional warfare and ensuing blame through UN mediation, a sound theory, but the UN's roadmap could easily increase the pressure for this outcome. 

"If the regime’s intransigence continues," said Carney, "the international community is going to have to admit defeat and work to address the serious threat to peace and stability being perpetrated by the Assad regime. If that takes place, we will work with the Security Council, our counterparts on the Security Council, as well as outside the Council as needed - and that includes, obviously, with the “Friends of Syria,” the broader group of nations that support the Syrian people." 

Syria's National Council (SNC) has supported Annan's plan out of necessity, not because of any genuine confidence in the UN's mission. Although the intensity and scale of violence has declined since April 12th, government forces continue to circumvent their presence by firing before or after the arrival of UN personnel. Heavy weapons and tanks remain stationed inside or around urban areas, checkpoints obstruct daily movement through intimidation and some Syrians fear the repercussions of meeting UN observers. 300 total observers are also likely to be overwhelmed by the conflict's scale. Many parts of the opposition expect Annan's plan to collapse before al-Assad's regime and want to initiate the military/humanitarian phase that Carney alludes to. 

"There is no strong divergence among the members," SNC member Mohammed Al-Mazied Al-Turkaw told Arab News. "However, there are differences on adopting proper ways to remove the Syrian regime from power, some want international intervention while others do not. However, we all started believing that the international military intervention in Syria is necessary to force the Syrian president out. It is not enough to arm the free army." 

No matter the context, no one should confuse the failure of Annan's plan with "defeat." The word itself has no reason to be spoken, given that defeat is a state of mind, and the threat of UN or unilateral action is partially deflated by this thinking. Annan's plan was built to fail and thus cannot be viewed as a real casualty. As the situation stands, Western and Gulf states have drained a modest amount of blood from al-Assad's regime and set the political conditions for a military response. This time must be used to organize and understand long-term nature of insurgency, not continue to pursue a fatally flawed dialogue with al-Assad's regime.

An overarching strategic decision eventually must be made in order to avert Syria's worst-case scenarios. 

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