Here’s how to handle Syria
Bashar al-Assad continues his war on the Syrian opposition, despite the presence of United Nations observers. His efforts have generated extremist reactions, including major bombings. The Syrian opposition continues to fragment, even as protesters manage to mount peaceful demonstrations in many parts of the country. The conflict is increasingly sectarian in character and has overflowed to Lebanon’s Tripoli.
There is no alternative in sight to the existing Security Council resolutions. Syria is not on the NATO summit agenda this weekend in Chicago. The Americans continue to need the Russians “on side” for nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week in Baghdad. Unilateral American action on Syria is not in the cards. Europe is preoccupied with its own financial crisis and is unable to act without American help. Qatari and Saudi weapons entering Syria are likely to increase violence and worsen sectarian tensions.
So what is to be done? Here are some ideas for the Obama administration:
- Lend wholehearted support to the Annan plan, which the United States has been badmouthing ever since the Security Council passed Resolution 2043 on Apr. 21.
- Talk with Moscow about ensuring that Russian vital interests in Syria, port access and arms sales, are protected once Bashar al-Assad is gone. The United States no longer needs to block Moscow’s access to a Mediterranean port, as it did during the Cold War. Russian arms sales to Syria are a small price to pay to bring down a regime that links Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
- Deploy civilian observers – including Americans – to Syria. The Security Council has already authorized a civilian component to the U.N. Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). It would be too much to expect Syria to accept U.S. military observers, and the U.S. does not send its soldiers and Marines into harm’s way unarmed, as the UNSMIS observers are. But we have had good results with unarmed civilian observers in the Kosovo Verification Mission before the NATO-Yugoslavia war, when the lead observer spoke truth to power about a civilian massacre.
- Stop talk about arming the opposition. It isn’t what we should be doing or encouraging because of the likelihood it will prolong sectarian conflict; we can’t control where the weapons end up; and there is no hope that an insurgency will defeat Assad anytime soon.
- Redouble encouragement for peaceful demonstrations, which are occurring every day in Syria, and try to ensure that the U.N. observers are present for them.
- Increase the flow of non-weapons aid to the opposition inside Syria, which claims to have received precious little so far, and provide intelligence on threatening movements of Syrian security forces.
- Present overhead video of heavy weapons in use against Syrian cities at the Security Council, along with other hard evidence of Annan plan violations. Anne-Marie Slaughter has proposed a U.N. website that would post video and photographs uploaded by Syrians.
- Tighten the application of sanctions, including implementing the draconian financial sanctions already adopted for Iran against Syria as well.
When the Security Council approved the Annan plan, the United States called for “swift and meaningful consequences … should the regime continue to flout its obligations.” The best way of getting those consequences approved in the Security Council is to support full implementation of the Annan plan. Then the United States can go to the Council in mid-July, when the observer mission has to be renewed, arguing that despite its sincere efforts, Bashar al-Assad has defied the international community and needs to be taught a lesson.
PHOTO: Anti-government protesters attend the funeral of Mahmoud Al Moustafa, whom protesters said was killed by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in Deir Al Zour, May 15, 2012. REUTERS/Handout