By Mona Yacoubian – The Syrian crisis is at a crucial crossroads, with one path preserving
the option for a “soft landing,” while the other portends a descent into
a protracted sectarian conflict.
Hoping to avert a civil war, the United Nations has accelerated efforts
to stave off the bloodshed and encourage a peaceful political
transition via the “Annan Plan.” As Syria spirals deeper into violence,
the U.N.-backed plan is rapidly unraveling, but still represents the
last, best chance for avoiding widespread conflict in Syria. The Annan
Plan embodies an unprecedented international consensus on Syria,
including Russia and China, which could be leveraged to impose
significant consequences on the Syrian government if the plan collapses.
The Syrian uprising is the most brutal of the Arab revolts. The U.N.
estimates that more than 9,000 people have died, while a British-based
Syrian organization puts the figure at 11,000. Human rights groups have
accused the Syrian government of widespread illegal detentions, torture,
and extrajudicial killings. The United Nations Human Rights Commission
has reported evidence that Syrian forces have committed crimes against
humanity. Syria’s armed opposition has also been accused of human rights
abuses. The U.N. estimates that the conflict has created 61,000
refugees and displaced 230,000 people internally.
Prompted by Syria’s deteriorating humanitarian situation, the U.N. has
spearheaded efforts to find a peaceful resolution, led by former
Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan successfully negotiated a six-point
plan to end the violence and address numerous political and humanitarian
concerns. A spotty cease-fire went into effect April 12, with Syrian
government shelling continuing in hotspots including Hama, Homs, and the
Damascus suburbs. Other key elements of the plan include a total
pullback of Syrian troops from population centers, release of detainees,
the right of Syrians to protest peacefully, and the provision of
The Annan plan has been backed by two unanimous Security Council
resolutions, paving the way for the initial deployment of several
unarmed U.N. military observers, expected to eventually increase to 300
under the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). The mission is
charged with monitoring the cease-fire and the Annan Plan’s “full
implementation.” The Security Council resolution establishing the
mission concludes by noting its intention to “consider further steps as
appropriate” should it assess that implementation is not forthcoming.
Understandable skepticism surrounds the plan; the Syrian government has
little motivation to comply with its six points. Withdrawing its troops
and heavy weapons from population centers could well prompt tens of
thousands of Syrians into the streets in peaceful protests, facilitating
the “Tahrir moment” that the regime has long feared. Instead, in
agreeing to the plan, the Syrian government likely seeks to accomplish
three goals: buy time while it aggressively pursues its opponents; keep
Russia on its side; and preserve its domestic support.
Moreover, the Syrian government could derail the plan by either
stalling the conclusion of a Status of Mission Agreement outlining the
U.N. mission or attempting to insert significant loopholes in the
agreement impeding the observers’ ability to carry out their mission.
Even in the best of circumstances, the mission entails significant risk.
Deploying 300 unarmed military observers in a volatile environment
could both imperil the observers and render them ineffective in the face
of massive government force. Already, in some instances, the observers’
presence appears to have endangered Syrians who have spoken to them,
only to be targeted by government reprisals after the observers leave.
The observers themselves could also become targets of violence.
Despite these significant risks, the Annan Plan should not be
abandoned. The international consensus forged to date by the Annan Plan,
is perhaps its most powerful asset. In a recent statement, the Arab
League secretary general underscored the significance of the U.N. plan’s
international consensus on Syria. Building on this consensus, the U.N.
must swiftly negotiate a mission status agreement that guarantees the
mission’s ability to work effectively. It must seek to deploy monitors
as quickly as possible and ensure their ability to travel throughout
Syria unhindered. At the same time, the Security Council must begin
discussions on consequences for non-compliance with the resolution and
status agreement and ensure that the Syrian government is fully informed
of these potential consequences.
Should the U.N.-backed plan collapse under the weight of Syrian
intransigence and continued violence on the ground, the United States,
Europe and their regional allies should work closely with Russia and
China to seek a broad consensus on these next steps. Rushing to arm the
Syrian opposition or seek other military options would put a decisive
end to this fragile unity, heightening the possibility of a multi-level
proxy war in Syria.
Instead, a multilateral effort to devise consequences for Syrian
intransigence should leverage Russia and China’s support for the Annan
plan into concerted action against Syria for violating it. U.N. economic
sanctions and an international arms embargo should be the centerpiece
of these efforts, tightening the noose around the Assad regime’s neck,
while hopefully slowing the descent into civil war.
This piece was first published in Al-Monitor at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/annan-plan-last-best-chancebr-fo.html
Photo credit: United Nations Information Service