Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Annan's Syria Plan: Too little, Too Late?

By Colum Lynch
                                                                            Former Secretary of U.N. Kofi Anan with the Mufti of Syria
After months of discord, the U.N. Security Council last week coalesced around a diplomatic initiative led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, presenting a rare show of unity in the face of President Bashar al-Assad's bloody repression of anti-government protesters.
But has the deal brought the world any closer to a democratic future under a leader that enjoys popular support? A 6-point political settlement, authored by Annan and endorsed this week by the U.N. Security Council, is ambiguous about the fate of President Assad.
And it has done little to change the realities on the ground, where the Syrian government has continued to secure military gains against an armed opposition that is running desperately low on ammunition.
"All the evidence ... points to Assad thinking basically that there is a military solution to this crisis, that given time and space he can crush the dissent," said one council diplomat. "We don't buy that. We think they squash it in one place, as they did recently in Homs, it pops up somewhere else, as we saw in Damascus."
But the official said that Assad's continuing defiance could provide a "hook" to bring the matter back before the Security Council, where it can adopt tougher measures against the regime.
The U.N. Security Council members, including U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, have trumpeted the council's latest statement as a modest step that offers the best hope of ending the violence in Syria, opening the floodgates for humanitarian assistance and starting talks on a political transition, something that both sides have so far refused to do.
But for many outside observers the promise of sterner action remains uncertain, particularly given veto-wielding Russia's support for Assad, and it may too late to alter the course of development through diplomacy.
"This is a plan which, if it had been put on the table six weeks ago, would have offered Assad away out for the regime. But it has much less reason to bargain at a time where the regime is scoring successive military victories," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center for International Cooperation. "The problem is that the Syrian military is continuing to create facts on the ground and Annan and the Security Council are inevitably struggling to keep up."
The Washington Post editorial page put it more bluntly on March 22: Annan's initiative, it reasoned, "will likely provide time and cover for the regime of Bashar al-Assad to continue using thanks and artillery to assault Syrian cities and indiscriminately kill civilians. That's exactly what the regime was doing Thursday -- pounding the city of Hama, where at least 20 people have been reported killed in army attacks in the past two days."
U.N. officials are convinced that Assad cannot end the uprising through military means, and that he will ultimately need to bargain the terms of his political future. "If he thinks he can weather this storm...he [has made] a serious misjudgment," Ban Ki-moon recently told a small group of reporters over lunch. "He cannot continue like this. He has gone too deep, too far."
In the meantime, Annan has urged the armed opposition's foreign sympathizers, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, not to supply anti-government forces with weapons and other military supplies. Annan urged Russian President Dmitry Medvedev over the weekend to press Assad to accept his peace proposal, and reportedly met with top Chinese officials in Beijing on Sunday to secure a similar commitment.
Annan told the Security Council earlier this month that Assad's initial response to his diplomatic entreaties have been "disappointing." But he placed hope that a united Security Council could turn the diplomatic tide.
"The stronger and clearer the message you can collectively send," he told the council in a closed door briefing on March 16, "the better the chance that we can begin to shift the worrying dynamics of the conflict."
Engineering such a change may be complicated by Assad's own calculation of the personal dangers of peace. "There are risks for him in that he may fear he will lose on the negotiating table what he through fighting," said Gowan. "He may have concluded it is simply best to create a military fait accompli."
"The argument one hears advanced is that the damage to his political base has been so great he cannot survive long in office even if he wins on the battlefield," Gowan added. "Where as long as the fighting continues he has the upper hand, and so will never back down."
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 26/03/2012
- Colum Lynch is a longtime Washington Post correspondent

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