Yesterday afternoon, Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan briefed the Security Council on the progress that the government of Bashar al-Assad has made in implementing his eponymous Six Point Plan. The verdict: not much. Contrary to prior briefings, in his update to the Council, Annan sounded a much more pessimistic tone:
The Syrian army has not retreated from population centers, as called for in the accord, and continues to fire heavy artillery against civilians, Annan said. In addition, Syrian authorities continue mass arrests, and the extent of violence remains “unacceptable,” he said, according to [diplomats].
This admission comes after weeks of commentators predicting the swift collapse of the Annan Plan as a way forward in Syria. Speaking to the UN Press Corps after his briefing, and seeming to direct his response to these critics, Annan indicated that were there another viable plan to end the violence, he would gladly support it. At this time, according to Annan, no such plan exists. The Security Council is also on hold from pressing for such a plan until the Secretary-General presents his first 15-day report on the implementation of Resolution 2043 early next week.
The critiques of the Annan plan are many, and for the most part accurate, including that the number on the ground is but a few. However, one point that many seem to overlook is that the Annan Plan is an attempt to staunch the blood flow in Syria, without healing the wound. The latter is the political process that the Annan Plan hoped to foster. As a way to slow the violence, without completely halting it, the deployment of the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) has been effective.
UNSMIS also has played its role of cataloguing abuses for report to the Secretary-General well, especially in the face of the many obstacles it must overcome, including bombs exploding near the head of the Mission. To Major-General Mood’s credit, in response to the explosion, he stated that it is “what the Syrian people experience everyday”. But the non-state participants in the international community are becoming increasingly less patient with the pace of the UN’s measures and indicators of progress.
In a Foreign Policy article published yesterday, Salman Shaikh issued an at times scathing condemnation of the Plan, noting that it is “flawed because it was formulated on the misguided belief that the Assad regime will ever stop using violence against domestic protesters and negotiate with them in good faith”. Shaik makes several strong points throughout his article, and unlike many, he provides the basis of an alternative that moves beyond the calls for the use of force that most provide. However, there are still flaws in his argument. The start of his call to action begins with a plea to have the world aid the opposition in uniting:
With the stakes so high, the international community cannot afford to pin its hopes on the Annan plan. Instead, it should accept the hard lessons of the past 14 months and redirect its efforts toward changing the balance of power on the ground.
Those countries with a stake in Syria’s future should do their utmost to help Syrians organize a broad-based national movement that unites people on the basis of opposition to the regime and commitment to a democratic Syria. This will require undoing the Assads’ 42-year old “divide and rule” strategy, bringing together key groups of Syrian society such as minorities and tribes. These groups now have a crucial role to play to hasten the regime’s demise and place Syria on a path to a democratic future.
I fully agree that this is a needed piece to solving Syria. The issue appears to be figuring out how to do so, not in having the will to get it done. As noted in his next paragraph, Syrians still living within the borders of the country don’t necessarily have confidence in the Syrian National Council. Unfortunately, in keeping with the lack of will to have their actions dictated by outsiders that causes that lack of confidence, there are few ways to provide the sort of safe-zones for these alliance building negotiations within Syria. Patrolling a few cities at a time is currently taxing UNSMIS; providing a safe haven for political committees to organize without fear of retaliation would require many, many more observers of a non-military makeup. Barring this ability to directly facilitate, I am uncertain how Shaikh intends the countries mentioned to aid the process.
Further, Shaik still manages to call for an increased effort to provide weaponry to the Free Syrian Army:
[Tribes in Syria] express greater support for the fragmented FSA [than the Syrian National Council], even if it has struggled to establish a clear command-and-control structure inside Syria from its Turkish base. Tribal figures have stated that they want the international community to support the FSA by providing expert assistance and help with communications and specific armaments. They worry that the uncoordinated, steady trickle of arms through private sources and the determined efforts of jihadists to enter Syria through Iraq will lead only to further chaos. They also point out that many FSA leaders and ordinary soldiers are “sons of the tribes,” and that more would join its ranks if the FSA had greater external support. Notably, there is also increasing talk of a military alliance between the FSA — in collaboration with the SNC — and the tribes and Kurds.
While calls for a controlled and managed provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army seem logical, the logistical components involved make such a venture riskier than Shaik notes. Further, the introduction of new arms into the region has already begun to affect Lebanon, whose fate has long been tied to Syria. The UN Special Envoy to the Middle East has told reporters that arms are now flowing both ways, from Syria to Lebanon and back across the border. Another UN official referred to this transfer as “a dance of death at the brink of the abyss of war”. I highly doubt that in giving arms to the FSA, we can then check their redistribution to others throughout the region.
His paragraph also highlights the reasoning behind many governments’ squeamishness in increasing engagement with the FSA. The lack of a clear command-and-control structure, let alone any sort of cohesion in its components, is a problem that should be fixed before greater arms flows, not as an afterthought. While history has made abundantly clear that armed rebellions almost always require external intervention of some sort from an established power to be successful, that self-same history proves the folly that comes from providing such material support without an established, unified opposition. Sending arms without a clear idea of how long the coalition that will be holding them will last without splintering is troubling at best.
Of course, Shaikh is nowhere near alone in his belief that the United States needs to somehow take a stronger lead in ensuring Syrian unity and training to the FSA. Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as much yesterday, again invoking the idea of safe zones. Dan Trombly has written enough on the concept of safe zones to need my further input. Daniel Serwer has also critiqued Senator Kerry for his stance on arming the FSA, noting that the sorts of small arms that would be provided would not be much of a deterrent against tanks and aircraft.
Indeed, given the alternatives, I agree with Serwer that the Annan Plan is the best of a series of bad options for Syria. In viewing the progress of the Plan and UNSMIS, Richard Gowan manages to sum up the greatest challenges and promise of the two:
The problem is that UNSMIS is not really a peacekeeping operation. Though it is meant to supervise a ceasefire, it is in fact being deployed to watch over a live conflict — and the Security Council’s members know this. Russia has maneuvered to limit the mission’s ability to report on the fighting. Western diplomats have pushed back, demanding that UNSMIS must be able to move freely and have access to Syrian citizens.
So UNSMIS has been cast in two patently incompatible roles. For Russia, the mission is meant to be an alibi for continued inaction over Syria. For the West, it is meant to be a trigger for more severe measures — although options for applying new pressure on Damascus short of the use of force are becoming harder to find.
But it may be wrong to judge UNSMIS on its ability or inability to keep a non-existent peace in Syria. Instead, the real question is whether its potential failure will have any effect on international diplomacy over the crisis. If UNSMIS sinks without a trace, it will be a setback for the West and the credibility of U.N. operations elsewhere. If it acts as a trigger for some sort of decisive intervention, it may be counted as some sort of heroic failure. But it could leave lasting scars on U.N. peacekeeping either way.
UNSMIS and the Plan that laid its groundwork are indeed modest efforts to stop a worsening crisis. In seeking a managed, orderly path towards an end game in Syria, the United Nations Secretariat and the Security Council are attempting to contain the forces at play and prevent a renewed explosion of violence that ends in strife across the region. All the while, they insist that Assad end the campaign within his borders and bow to political pressure. In short, they are attempting to bring about a revolution without dancing. Pressure is mounting, though, to strike up the band and untether the opposition, into a cacophony of a free-for-all against the government. Mr. Annan is right to frame his Six Points as the last chance to prevent civil war. The real question though is how long the international community will wait before embracing the oncoming war and seeking to shape its outcome?