West should give Annan plan another chance
July 31st, 2012
03:25 PM ET

West should give Annan plan another chance

By Julien Barnes-Dacey, Special to CNN

Editors note: Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was based in Damascus from 2007 to 2010. The views expressed are his own.

As civil war engulfs Syria talk of politics and diplomacy has fallen silent. The Annan plan, previously bandied around by Western governments as the only way forward, attracts scant attention, while support for the armed opposition is intensifying with the indirect backing of Western governments.

Yet even as the militarization of the opposition gains steam, it’s imperative that efforts aimed at securing a political transition be maintained rather than abandoned as increasingly appears to be the case. As the conflict develops and balances of power shift, new openings will emerge and the international community must be primed to support any opportunities if the country is to be saved from a protracted conflict that could destabilize the entire region.

The logic behind the recent move towards supporting the armed opposition is self-evident. Despite former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s labors, Bashar al-Assad has shown no willingness to initiate any meaningful reform process and continues to use brutal violence to crack down on the opposition. Meanwhile, international diplomacy has floundered in the face of sharp divisions within the U.N. Security Council. Importantly, recent developments on the ground suggest that the tide may slowly be turning. The assassination of key security officials in Damascus, rebel incursions in major cities and a growing number of defections all point to increased rebel capabilities.

However, even as the West tilts towards a military track, it shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that the regime will be easily pushed aside. Al-Assad maintains formidable military might, as well as meaningful support among important elements of the population, and the provision of material support to the rebels is unlikely to prove quickly decisive. Indeed, it’s more likely to encourage a deeper civil war, albeit one in which the opposition possesses greater means of self-defense. This will open the door for the entrenchment of deeply destabilizing forces – violent, communal and religious – that could push the country towards collapse. Recent reporting on the increased prominence of jihadist groups is an ominous sign, and the West shouldn’t fool itself into thinking that Saudi Arabia, a prominent backer of the opposition, cares for the establishment of a meaningful democracy in Syria.

As such, efforts to arm the rebels should be accompanied by a continued drive to facilitate a political solution, even if it remains unlikely at the current juncture. Pointedly, the provision of arms may actually make a political solution more feasible by tilting the balance of power away from the regime or creating a stalemate that pushes both sides towards eventual compromise – but only if there’s a platform to take advantage of any such shift.

There are three specific areas where the West can make a difference. First and foremost, it must urgently mend relations with Russia. Though the West disagrees with Moscow’s stance on Syria, continued grandstanding will only result in ongoing conflict in the Security Council, while cementing Russia's willingness to provide Assad with money and arms. It’s crucial that the West engage in deal-making rather than moralizing and that the different sides come to some sort of agreement whereby Russia and the Security Council can play a positive role. A start would be to recognize some of Russia's concerns and to consent to their proposed peace conference in Moscow between regime and opposition figures. Although unlikely to resolve the conflict, this would at minimum shift some ownership onto Russian shoulders and give them a sense that the West is looking to work with, rather than against, them on Syria.

Second, the West urgently needs to reaffirm its support for Annan's efforts and the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). Annan should be encouraged to continue his mediating efforts, particularly – reflecting another weakness of Western diplomacy – as he’s the only person talking to all of the important actors in the conflict, both domestic and international. Without this dialogue there’s no hope of drawing the different parties towards an eventual compromise. It’s important to remember that continued support from the likes of Iran could help prop the regime up for some time yet – hence the utter urgency of drawing Tehran into the conversation.

Equally, the UNSMIS mission should have its mandate extended, even if its role is restricted due to security concerns. UNSMIS remains the only body monitoring developments on the ground and seeking to mediate between the warring sides, especially now that most diplomats have pulled out of the country. A continued mandate will also allow for the rapid deployment of monitors across the country to support any ceasefire and transition mechanisms if and when they emerge.

Finally, efforts need to be enhanced towards creating a viable road map for the transition. The lack of a credible plan has stoked fears about the real possibility of a post-Assad implosion, while also keeping minorities and fence-sitters from joining the opposition. Ultimately, the opposition must own the process, but rather than spending exorbitant – and ultimately futile – effort trying to unify the different groups, the West should be pushing for public agreement on core principles, notably the importance of an inclusive process that safeguards minority tights. Towards such an end, the West should weaken its reliance on the discredited and absolutist SNC and give greater importance to the internal voices of the opposition who better represent the uprising and who have also shown greater willingness to reach common accord and compromise.

To be sure, these tracks are unlikely to decisively impact the conflict in the immediate short term. Meanwhile, calls to arm the opposition more forcefully will attract growing support. However, a singular focus on strengthening the rebels may only deepen, rather than resolve, the conflict. It must therefore be accompanied by ongoing efforts to incentivize a political transition. Here, the West needs to be doubling its efforts instead of falling into paralysis following the failures of recent months.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria • United Nations

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Annan will get his big win, but not in Syria.

    July 31, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      For the moment, the warring parties don't need Annan's six-point plan. The rebels and the regime are fighting a crucial battle in Aleppo, which will determine Assad's destiny and the Syrian nation. It's a zero-sum game and the winner takes it all. The rebels are totally outgunned by Assad's conventional army, but they are willing to sacrifice their lives. It's not certain if Assad's soldiers and conscripts will do the same.

      July 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
      • Jaybird

        These so-called Syria "rebels" will never sue the Assad regime for peace as long as the West along with their Arab cronies continue to supply them with arms and ammunition, thus the civil war will go on and on!

        July 31, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
      • fantasticiquattro

        Jaybird, with cronies like you in the West, Butcher Assad can continue to kill and kill. He appreciates your support.

        August 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
      • Marine5484

        Good posting above, Jaybird. How true that rings!

        August 1, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
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  3. Aaron Chaney

    DAMASCUS, (SANA) – Syrian People Stood As One Man Against Schemes

    President al-Assad pointed out that "...enemies wanted to prevent our people from their national decision but they were surprised by the Syrian people who stood as one man against their schemes and defeated them, leading them to look for a way out of their defeats, plot more schemes and assign the task of carrying out such schemes to local agents."

    +

    DAMASCUS, (SANA) – Russian Embassy in Damascus Conducts Business as Usual

    The Press Attaché at the Russian Embassy in Damascus Artyom Savelyev announced that his Embassy has not received any instructions from Moscow related to evacuating Russian citizens or any changes in the Embassy's work schedule related to the Russian government's decision to enlist Syria within states declared as living under "emergency case conditions."

    "The Russian Embassy in Damascus didn't receive any instructions on evacuating families of Russian diplomats," Savelyev said in a statement issued in Moscow on Tuesday.

    Savelyev added that the situation in Damascus is calm and life is normal as the city observes the holy month of Ramadan.

    +

    MOSCOW, (SANA) – Syrian Official Delegation Headed by Dr. Qadri Jamil Visits Russia, Meets Russian Deputy Premier

    Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin affirmed that the position of his country, president and government regarding the Syrian crisis is firm and a matter of principle, reiterating Moscow's absolute opposition to any interference in Syria's internal affairs.

    These remarks came during Khloponin's meeting on Tuesday with a Syrian official delegation headed by Dr. Qadri Jamil, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection.

    Khloponin said the people of Syria have the inalienable right to resolve internal problems on their own and added that Russia understands the complexity of the situation in Syria and that it will exert its best efforts up to and including providing tactical assistance to help resolve those issues discussed during the meeting.

    Talks focused on the two countries mutual alliance in various fields, particularly military cooperation, economic principles, petroleum, energy, aerial and marine transport, as well as railways, industry, agriculture, irrigation, health, higher education, and scientific research. Additionally the diplomats discussed the means to improve and enhance trade exchange and banking relations.

    In a statement to SANA's correspondent in Moscow following the meeting, Dr. Jamil affirmed Russia's position with regard to the Syrian crisis as being unchanged since the first veto and consistent up to the third veto, and that Russia's firm position expresses Russian interests are compatible with Syrian interests.

    He went on to note far reaching prospects for Syrian-Russian bilateral relations aimed at countering and significantly degrading the ability of terrorists to operate throughout the region and that these proposals will be rapidly expanded upon in the near future.

    August 2, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
  4. Aaron Chaney

    ALEPPO, (PRESS TV) – At least 150 armed thugs were killed after Syrian troops stormed a school that these deceived terrorist gangs were occupying in the northern city of Aleppo.

    The ongoing 'Operation Target Traitor' which is geared towards insuring the safety of citizens was carried out in Aleppo's Salahuddin district on Wednesday.

    Press TV reports a relative calm has returned to Aleppo in recent days after Syrian security forces cleared out several areas of the city being utilized by these cowards as a base to intimidate residents, instigate unrest and sow sedition.

    +

    ALEPPO, (SANA) – Terrorists Killed and Injured While Placing Explosives in a Warehouse in Aleppo

    An official source told SANA that an armed terrorist group managed to seize a warehouse in Aleppo where military uniform and food supplies are stored, before they then proceeded to set off a round of explosives. However an explosive device went off misadverdently as the connivers were planting it which caused several charges to explode and resulted an unconfirmed amount of fatalities, as well severe injuries to members who comprised that factional subversive group.

    +

    DARAA, (SANA) – In contemplating recent statements emanating from various foreign capitals, an anonymous source at the Foreign Ministry acknowledges how 'Operation Target Traitor' will serve as the conduit that prepares Syrian Armed Forces for a possible wider regional engagement. 'It's ugly already, but there is definitely a real possibility that such a scenario may arise as a result of this persistent and illicit arrangement that utilizes foreign mercenaries alongside agitators who have been deluded into believing they can intimidate and overthrow a democratically elected government. While our brave troops are well trained to withstand this game of cat and mouse and sucessfully defend the Syrian homeland, if the situation were to escalate into a foreign aggression, we would not hesitate to coordinate with states who the resistance can count on and designates strategic allies.'

    August 2, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
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    August 18, 2012 at 9:15 am | Reply

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