Syria’s Unfolding Tragedy: What Can Be Done?
As the carnage in Syria continues, the powers that are capable of taking serious measures to stop it are busy finding excuses to explain their collective ineptitude. Meanwhile, the Syrian people are paying with their blood day in and day out while the international community is shamelessly hiding behind UN envoy Kofi Annan’s plan that was doomed from day one. Since the Syrian government “accepted” the plan a month ago, at least 1,000 Syrians have been killed and thousands more have been displaced. The Arab League (AL), the United States, the European Union and Turkey, who in particular can collectively stop Assad’s killing machine, still pin down their hopes on a plan that Assad has, with impunity, already turned into yet another mockery of the international community.
For obvious reasons, Kofi Annan would like to believe that his plan can still work, but this wishful thinking is like trying to resuscitate a dead man and hoping for a miracle. His insistence on giving the plan more time does nothing but play into Assad’s hands. Meanwhile, the death toll is mounting while preventing other potentially more viable options from being tested. All scenarios of Annan’s plan are leading to failure. As the previous (and futile) AL observers’ mission indicated, Assad is repeating the practice he has excelled at thus far – stopping the aggression against peaceful demonstrators when the observers are around and resuming the killing once they have left. In a country like Syria that comprises an area of 185 thousand square kilometers and is populated by 23 million people, this tactic could easily be maintained even if the number of UN observers is increased ten-fold to the 300 observers that France desires.
At the same time, Assad’s clique shrewdly realizes the limitations and constraints of an international military intervention. Assad knows that in the midst of presidential elections, and having just concluded one war in Iraq and still fighting another in Afghanistan, the United States will not risk military intervention in another Middle East conflict unless large-scale massacres are committed. For that reason, the Assad regime is regulating how many people should be killed per day, a number that varies between 50 and 100, in order not to trigger an intervention. Moreover, he understands that no Arab country has the military muscle or the will to intervene militarily including Egypt, which in any case is marred in its own turmoil. Assad has further calculated that the fractured nature of the Syrian opposition makes it unlikely for the AL and the international community to arm the rebels, out of concern that Syria will be torn apart and fall into an al-Qaeda-led prolonged sectarian conflict that might well spread to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq. Alas, his calculations seem to be working as he continues to defy the international community with impunity. In the midst of all the ongoing slaughter, Assad is proceeding with parliamentary elections, adding insult to the national injury.
For these reasons other options must be explored, provided they are executed in concert to have a greater and more immediate effect. Iraq can provide a basis for changing the dynamic, especially because Baghdad has a vested interest in stabilizing its own neighborhood. Due to a confluence of unique circumstances, including holding the presidency of the AL, retaining the ability to provide vast material resources, occupying a unique geostrategic position between Syria and Iran, hosting the upcoming talks on Iran’s nuclear program, and filling the absence of Egyptian or Saudi leadership while enjoying a greater influence on the Assad regime than any other Arab country, Iraq can play a pivotal role to diffuse the crisis in Syria.
Finally, the Arab states should remember that Iraq has a strong desire to return to the Arab fold and be embraced by it. Indeed, Iraq’s Arab nationalism will trump its sectarian divide and its present Shiite affinity to Iran. For these reasons Iraq should be encouraged to play a role that no other state within the AL can currently perform. The Arab states should also bear in mind that the greater and faster the integration of Iraq back into the Arab fold, the greater the distance will be created between Iraq and Syria from Iran.
Iraq, as president of the AL, can call for new summit meetings and introduce a resolution that offers a safe passage and refuge for Assad and his cohorts. In so doing, the Syrian people would look to Iraq as a positive neighbor, rather than one that allowed the sectarian conflict to continue unabated. If the AL officially endorsed such a plan, it could provide at least a plausible opportunity for Assad to consider, although perhaps not immediately. But given the fact that even under the most far-fetched, ideal scenario where Assad faithfully abides by the cease-fire and creates a space for non-violent protests to re-emerge, there is still no way out. The shooting at peaceful demonstrators that killed four students at Aleppo University strongly suggests that the Assad regime has no intention of allowing peaceful demonstrations as required by Annan’s plan. Assad and his lieutenants recognize that however peaceful future protests may be, the protesters will still demand, along with political reforms, accountability for the thousands of Syrian people killed and tortured by Assad’s forces. If justice is not served, revenge killing will be extracted. They further know that there is already bad blood and will have to fight to the finish simply because they are fighting for their own lives, which at one point in the near future may make safe passage an attractive option.
Assad will not opt for this option at this juncture unless mounting pressure is brought to bear on his regime. This is where the US can make a significant difference. Frustrated with the Annan plan but constrained by a presidential election, President Obama is more than likely to rule out any direct military intervention. That said, the US still has a responsibility to ratchet up the pressure by resorting to truly crippling sanctions and encouraging others (in particular the European Union and the Arab states) to act accordingly. The current sanctions, including a ban on overseas travel by Syrian senior government officials, are important but not effective enough to have a real impact. Instead, strict financial sanctions should target Assad and his government and military leaders. In addition to the Central Bank of Syria, the US should target the commercial Bank of Syria and other financial institutions while continuing to provide the opposition with communications gear and much-needed intelligence, logistical support, and medical and other non-lethal equipment.
Russia and China, which have earlier vetoed UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, may now change their positions. Vladimir Putin, who has just assumed the presidency, might have good reason to shift Russia’s policy toward the Assad regime. Frustrated with Assad’s devious maneuverings, increasingly concerned over Russia’s standing in the eyes of the Arab world, and coupled with his personal ambitions to appear as the peace maker, Putin might move to sacrifice Assad while still preserving Russia’s strategic interest in Syria. That is why the US must now explore this possibility while encouraging the Syrian National Council (SNC) to reach an understanding with Moscow, according to which the latter’s strategic interest in the “new Syria,” especially Russia’s naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous, would be respected. In return, Russia would show its support of a new UN Security Council resolution that would condemn the Assad regime and call for his departure. China, revealing that it is already wavering as it has called on the Syrian government to respond to Annan’s plan and is expressing deep concerns over the continuation of violence and conflict, may well follow suit.
Should all of these efforts fail it will then be absolutely critical to resort to the Benghazi solution – a la Libya. What is crucial here is the idea of carving out a sizeable portion of Syrian territory along the Turkish borders to serve as a safe haven for refugees and offering a base for the military defectors to re-group and launch military operations against Assad’s forces. To this end Turkey is a central player. Ankara is extremely concerned over the deteriorating conditions in Syria. With the moral and semi-legal support of the AL and with logistical support from the EU and the US, Turkey might well come to the conclusion that this last option would entail considerably less risks than allowing the situation to unfold into uncontrollable chaos. The aim is to impose a no-fly zone over northern Syria bordering Turkey. No air strikes should be conducted against Syrian targets unless the Syrian air force threatens the protected “Free Syria” zone. The SNC would be based in this zone, creating a new governing authority and preparing to take over as a transitional government.
There is no easy solution to the Syrian debacle and the Annan plan has now become an obstacle rather than a plan that provides a solution to the conflict. Short of exploring these options immediately, a full scale civil war will certainly erupt, leaving trails of blood behind while the international community continues to shamelessly hide behind Kofi Annan’s plan that was dead on arrival.