As expected, Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for ending the violence in Syria has failed. Bashar al-Assad’s regime took the opportunity of an internationally certified timetable to escalate attacks against civilian areas in Syria, bringing the death toll for the last ten days to as high as 1,000, according to local activists. The northern town of Taftanaz in the north-Syrian province of Idlib was heavily damaged last week with artillery and helicopter gunships, which also fired on the suburbs of Syria’s main industrial city, Aleppo. Fleeing residents in the north have spoken of mass graves. Human Rights Watch released a report documenting 85 cases of the regime engaging in extrajudicial killings of unarmed civilians, many of whom were killed in March just as the ink was drying on Annan’s six points. True, after the 6 a.m. deadline for a cease-fire passed on April 12, the regime stopped its artillery shelling of most restive areas. However, talk of the cease-fire “holding” seems highly misleading, as 26 people were still killed by regime forces Thursday, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights. These include two infants who were shot by snipers.
Further embarrassing the Annan protocol is how the regime has sought to rewrite or improvise the terms. On April 8, it announced that it would comply with the deadline contingent on written guarantees that “armed terrorist groups...stop violence in all its forms.” Troops have yet to be withdrawn from population centers, and the US Embassy in Damascus posted satellite photos on Facebook showing that tanks and other military assets are still deployed throughout Syrian cities. Finally, as if to prove that Assad’s recklessness far outweighs his survival instinct, on April 9, Syrian security forces waged lethal cross-border raids into Lebanon and Turkey, violating both countries’ sovereignty.
Funny, that. Respect for Syria’s “sovereignty” has been cited by Assad’s main allies, Russia and China, as the paramount reason for opposing any UN Security Council resolution demanding Assad’s renunciation of power. Appeasing these Syrian allies was why Annan’s plan, which made no such demand for regime change, was put into effect in the first place.
The United States now finds itself an awkward predicament of having backtracked on President Obama’s earlier statement, made last August, that Assad squandered his role to lead a transitional government and therefore “must step aside.” It is beyond time for the president to seriously advance this goal without further relying on Moscow or Beijing—or indeed, Damascus—to accommodate him.
At the last Friends of the Syrian People conference in Istanbul, Washington announced that it would send more “non-lethal” aid to the Syrian rebels in the form of satellite phones and advanced communications because it doesn’t want to further “militarize” the conflict. Yet the conflict has already been sufficiently militarized by the regime, and satellite phones are only good for giving the rebels something to call Washington on to ask for weapons. Members of the Free Syrian Army I’ve interviewed say that they need anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions, neither of which have been forthcoming from Qatar or Saudi Arabia, making the US promise not to block such shipments moot. Contrast this to the steady flow of Iranian and Russian weapons to Assad. If we support the Syrian opposition, we have to support it all the way by arming it.
The US also offered, along with Gulf nations, to pay the salaries of Syrian military defectors in the hopes of encouraging more of them, though to do what exactly remains unclear. The majority of the Free Syrian Army is composed of armed civilians. In fact, many defectors have fled Syria and are now in neighboring countries. They would make an excellent crop of candidates for training as a professional gendarmerie to help establish law and order in a post-Assad state, which will almost certainly be plagued with reprisal campaigns and lawlessness. The Jordan International Police Training Center, built in 2003 with US funds to train the Iraqi and later Palestinian authorities, should now house willing Syrian cadets. Not only would this be responsible forward-planning, it would also send a signal to Assad’s power base that its replacement is being groomed next door. That might encourage more defections, all right.
Finally, and whether we like it or not, plans for some form of direct military intervention ought to be made now, in accordance with the suggestions of Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman and Lindsay Graham. This contingency grows more inevitable by the day as Turkey is beginning to view the Syrian crisis not just as a humanitarian catastrophe in itself but as a threat to Turkey’s own national security.
Leave aside the violent cross-border raid by Syrian security forces into a Turkish refugee camp on Sunday, which left several people—including one Turkish policeman—seriously wounded.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week threatened that “the actions of the Syrian regime could force Turkey” to impose a buffer zone in northern Syria. True, his government has been threatening to impose such a zone since last June when it first absorbed 10,000 Syrian refugees. However, the recent rise in the refugees’ number—a third of the total 24,300 arrived only in the last few weeks, according to the Turkish foreign minister—is inherently destabilizing to Turkey’s own sectarian balance. Most refugees are Sunnis, and they’re being housed in the Hatay province, a former Syrian territory that is home to a large number of Turkish Alawites—or “Arab Alevis,” as they’re called—who tend to be pro-Assad. On March 1, several Alevi homes in Hatay were marked with the same red cross symbol that preceded the 1978 Maraş Massacre of Alevis by Sunni ultra-nationalists. The Turkish Red Crescent anticipates as many as half a million refugees: that’s the same number of Iraqi Kurds seeking safe haven in Turkey at the close of the First Gulf War, which ultimately led to the creation of the buffer and no-fly zones in northern Iraq. In that instance, Turkey had the help of US, British, French, Dutch and Australian air power.
The Assad regime is quickly eroding the middle ground for diplomatic maneuvering, leaving the United States with the prospect that not only will thousands more Syrian have to die, but that their sacrifice will to be to ensure that Iran’s last ally in the Middle East remains standing.
Michael Weiss is Director of Communications and Public Relations at the Henry Jackson Society.