One day ahead of peace envoy Kofi Annan’s deadline to the Syrian regime, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces killed more than 160 people inside Syria and a cameraman in the north of Lebanon, and fired across the border into the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey, killing two Syrian residents and injuring four.
Today, instead of withdrawing troops from cities, Syrian forces started the day by shelling Marea, in the northern Aleppo province, after taking up positions around the village. Activists said that the government was also sending even more reinforcements into at least one other rebel stronghold, the besieged city of Rastan in central Homs province.
We don’t have to wait to see if Annan’s plan is going to work or not; the regime has sent a number of clear messages in the past few days. Assad will not stop his killing machine. Nor will the Syrian people stop protesting. The international community has exhausted all diplomatic efforts, and something needs to be done quickly.
The Friends of Syria Conference in Istanbul last week took place right after the delivery of Annan’s plan, which calls for a complete cessation of violence on both sides by this Thursday. In that light, the meeting’s official outcome was way below expectations. But the side meetings that occurred outside the official conference produced a number of scenarios in case Annan’s plan failed. These are to be followed up at the third Friends of Syria Conference to take place in Paris later this month. One of the most plausible scenarios is the creation of a buffer zone, according to some Syrian opposition figures.
On Sunday, the Syrian government announced it would not withdraw its forces from cities and towns without written guarantees from opposition groups that they will halt attacks and lay down their arms.
But Monday’s events escalated the sense of alarm, especially for the Turks. "Syrian citizens who took refuge in our country from the brutality of the current regime in Syria are under Turkey’s full protection," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We will certainly take necessary measures if such incidents reoccur."
The Turkish government did not specify which measures, or when and how they will be taken, but a number of Syrian activists believe that the shootings might give a push to Turkey’s plan to create a buffer zone along the border. For others, the recent events will encourage Qatar and Saudi Arabia to increase efforts to arm the opposition Free Syrian Army.
These two measures combined might change the balance of power and allow the rebels to get closer to the head of the snake: Damascus.
Turkey has its own reasons for wanting to decisively end the conflict in Syria; it certainly does not want to see more refugees entering its territory. About 2,500 Syrian refugees poured across border last week in a 24-hour period, bringing the total number of Syrians staying in southern Turkey to 24,300. Now that the Syrian regime violated Turkish sovereignty with the shooting, establishing a buffer zone looks like a very good idea.
On the other hand, the Syrian National Council, which has more or less been adopted by the Turkish government, needs to start gaining credibility if it is going to survive criticism from both activists inside Syria and opposition figures outside. Any serious step taken by the international community, especially Turkey, could add credit to the SNC and its political course, which so far has achieved nothing but issuing a series of statements and condemnations.
Unlike Turkey, however, the US seems to be less fixated on an urgent solution. During the Friends of Syria meeting, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton countered Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hard-line rhetoric with a lukewarm statement. The US is doing a delicate balancing act by appearing to support Erdogan, while at the same time ensuring they did not undermine Annan’s more restrained efforts.
But now a new phase has started. Any diplomatic effort will not be acceptable anymore, especially if Assad is being considered as an interlocutor, or if the regime and rebels are put on equal levels.
Concrete measures are drastically required, and the opposition will not accept less than a buffer zone and/or humanitarian passages. The international community should act on these two levels: substantial humanitarian aid and serious political intervention.
Establishing a buffer will lead to more defections among the regime forces and will facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. Both would capture international attention and show those who are still silent that the balance of power is tipping against the regime.
According to opposition figures in Istanbul, the buffer zone is ready and is being controlled by the FSA; it only needs international, or at least Turkish, protection. However, the regime’s forces are already trying to contain the area around it. That’s why Tel Rifaat in Aleppo was almost destroyed today, with tens of people massacred.
It is no longer useful to be patient.
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW Lebanon