There have been a lot of developments around Syria this week but ultimately landing the world in the same place. Joint UN and Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan appealed to Russia and gained the explicit backing of the UN Security Council and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accepted Annan’s plan, at least verbally. Yet the very next day there were widespread reports of military attacks on towns and villages by the Syrian army, adding to the more than 9,000 people killed so far, and UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said detained children are being tortured; hardly the ceasefire and military drawback stipulated in Annan’s peace plan.
Yet, the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, Turkey this coming Sunday, April 1st, has the potential to change the stalemate. If Assad does not cease attacks against civilians by that time, there will be added motivation for the Friends of Syria group to view Annan’s gambit as a failed attempt for peace. Moving on could mean the announcement of new confidence in the unity of the Syrian opposition which has already met in Turkey this week, and greater pressure for outside actors to arm the opposition. The United States and United Kingdom announced again this week that they will be stepping up nonlethal aid to the opposition, but seems a long way from providing arms. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar may not be so patient.
On the other side, Assad may very well see this danger and seek to make symbolic withdrawals of his forces. Recent attacks may be just a final push to gain ground before a ceasefire locks in those gains. This could be a continuation of Assad’s strategy to buy time and stave off growing international condemnation. Whether a calculated short-term move against international pressure or the beginnings of a longer term self-interested rapprochement, it would have the advantage of stopping the killing at least for the immediate future and create space for diplomacy.
However, that also assumes opposition forces would be willing to accept the ceasefire. This is an unlikely scenario given the lack of unity, let alone clear command and control among the opposition, and even less likely if that opposition senses a willingness for other countries to provide it with arms.
What we are left with is a dangerous balancing act in which the international community is trying to entice Assad to move toward peaceful settlement, but wary of his intentions as it seeks to support an opposition that struggles to unify, without encouraging a protracted civil war. Key to this balance will be the stances of Syria’s key remaining allies, Russia and possibly Iran, both of whom have endorsed Annan’s peace plan. The visit of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to Iran this week adds to the intrigue.
Will Russia and Iran (perhaps with self-serving incentives) be willing to increase pressure on Assad if he does not draw back, or is this stalling the very strategy they are suggesting he follow? On the other side, can the Friends of Syria help to unite the opposition and convince them to agree to a ceasefire or will they, by word or deed, encourage further fighting?
As we wait for these questions to be answered, and hope that this weekend’s Friends of Syria meeting adds some clarity, there are at least some things that can be controlled by the United States. Russia continues to provide weapons to the Syrian regime that are being used against civilians and the U.S. government continues to hold contracts with the very same Russian state-owned arms dealer that is providing those weapons. Two weeks after 17 Senators sent a letter asking for clarification from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on this issue, there are still no answers to why this is happening. Join your voice to those calls by clicking here.