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May 22, 2012, Tuesday

No plan B for Syria?

While the death toll in Syria continues to rise and with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continuing to sit reasonably comfortably in his presidential palace, the international community has continued to say there is no option other than to stick to the Annan plan and that there is no plan B even though the Annan plan seems destined to fail. With no dialogue between the parties and no proper cease-fire, the situation seems pretty hopeless. As well-known Syrian expert Salman Shaikh recently wrote in Foreign Policy, Kofi Annan seems to be on a mission impossible, so why is everyone pretending the UN plan has hope of succeeding?

The UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), consisting of some 300 monitors, is finding itself in an increasingly precarious situation and there is now a real chance its mandate will not be renewed when its first 90 days comes to an end on July 20. Nobody would envy the task of these brave guys who are literally risking their lives on a daily basis. It is very clear that the observers are monitoring a non-existent cease-fire. In fact, this is what I predicted would happen in one of my earlier columns -- that al-Assad would simply go along with the Annan plan just to get the international community off his back. I said it would probably bring an end to all the calls for him to step down (which it has, to a large extent) and could further divide the international community on the issue, which also seems to have happened. After all his promises to Annan, Assad has not yet implemented a single point of the six-point plan, with the situation now more entrenched and dangerous than ever.

Frankly, the Annan plan was always going to be a long shot because Assad never seemed to have any genuine intention to stop using violence, to launch reforms or to initiate a genuine dialogue. Even his friends in the Kremlin have been unable to get Assad to do this.

Today, the security situation is increasingly perilous. Assad has not withdrawn heavy military equipment from several towns and it must only be a matter of time before a UN observer is killed. Unarmed military monitoring missions are one of the most dangerous jobs undertaken by the UN, and this one must be one of the most hazardous.

Yet, while many commentators are declaring the Annan plan a failure, there is no consensus on this and probably won’t be anytime soon. Syria’s most loyal ally, Russia, is adamant the Annan plan should be given a proper chance to succeed and is urging the international community to stick with it. Moscow, which continues to sell arms to the Assad regime, fears losing its closest ally in the region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently stated that “the truce in Syria is still very fragile and all the influential parties on either side of the conflict should be guided by the interests of the Syrian people rather than their own ambitions.” He went on to claim that some Western actors want the Annan plan to fail and were continuing to deliver arms to opposition forces while trying to substitute the Security Council with various unofficial bodies.

According to Salman Shaikh, all the different groups in Syria need to genuinely unite and oppose the rule of Assad. He seems optimistic such a strategy would work, stating: “There is a growing desire among tribal groups from the strategically important eastern and northern areas of Syria to resist Assad, including through military means, and to unite with other groups, particularly the Kurds. ... Although the Kurds are divided in their stance toward the revolution, all want their culture and rights recognized in a post-Assad Syria.”

I guess for Annan, failure would be a big disappointment, even more so because it would be the second time an Anan plan has crashed and burned. The first was the 2004 Annan Plan that aimed to reunify Cyprus. While Annan has stated he is open to “alternative ideas” on how to progress or change the current situation, this request has met with silence. Clearly, it would be important for Annan himself to declare the plan a failure, otherwise Moscow will declare the likes of France or the UK had sabotaged it, giving the Kremlin an excused to block further efforts by the UN Security Council. Now that Vladimir Putin is back in the Kremlin, it would seem even more unlikely that Russia will change is policy regarding Syria. Unfortunately, because of the US elections, it may mean the Annan plan will be the only game in town until next year and therefore the death toll will continue to rise and the arc of instability that now stretches from Libya to Dagestan will continue to heat up. This is a very scary prospect.

The brutal regime of Assad has successfully been able to adopt a strategy of playing for time. How much longer are we going to accept this?

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