The reported massacres in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir have dealt a fatal blow to United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan. In the midst of continued human rights abuses, torture, and killings of civilians by government forces and pro-government militias, the international should be prepared for alternatives to the Annan plan to end the fighting and the Syrian regime’s ongoing atrocities. It’s clear that pro-government militias, likely coordinating with the Syrian army, bears the brunt of the responsibility in the killings of hundreds, including children who are being tortured and used as shields. The presence of 300 United Nations monitors could not prevent the massacres.
However, despite the escalating violence, the UN stands by the peace plan as the only option on the table. Annan briefed the Security Council on the creation of a contact group that will give teeth to the plan. He worked to convince the parties to implement it in its entirety by urging council members and neighboring countries to put pressure on the regime and the opposition to end the crisis. There clearly is a need for western nations to engage with Russia as a way to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to change course. However, the stalemate witnessed in past Security Council resolutions is bound to re-occur because of Russia’s insistence that Syria’s ally, Iran, be included in the diplomatic initiative. The U.S. is strongly opposed and just yesterday accused Russia of supplying the Syrian regime with attack helicopters. The dire situation and potential for more massacres shows that international community needs to develop an alternative to the peace plan, which has become synonymous with inaction and hypocrisy.
No one can predict how the situation on the ground will evolve but the latest mass killings and continued violence have increased radicalization within the opposition. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has ended its commitment to the ceasefire and called for a peace-enforcing mission rather than an observer mission. The FSA has also continued its call for western military intervention, include the creation of a no-fly zone and a buffer zone won’t gain much traction in the west, it shows that rebels are already in a state of war with the regime. The Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile, elected Abdelbaset Sieda, a Kurdish professor, as its new leader. The SNC’s choice of Mr. Sieda is being portrayed as a bid to broaden the opposition by rallying Syria’s 1 million Kurds and send a message to other minorities that they would be safe in a post-Assad Syria run by the majority Sunni population. In his first remarks, Mr. Sieda called on the United Nations to authorize military action on behalf of the Syrian opposition and, barring that, said the countries should take action without a UN mandate. In order to gain international support, Mr. Sieda needs to unify a council that has been plagued by internal divisions and has so far struggled to establish itself as an effective entity capable of representing the Syrian people.
With warnings of impending massacres in several towns across Syria, it is high time for a re-think on Syria beyond Annan’s plan. The international community should discuss further punitive measures such as UN arms embargo on Syria, referring members of the regime to the International Criminal Court, and keep other options on the table. Russia has expressed interest in the idea of a Yemen-style transition in Syria but Moscow would back such a move only if the Syrian people demanded it. None of these options guarantees a clear cut outcome, but relying on a peace plan that has failed times and times again risks making “never again” nothing more than a catchy motto.