Today’s news from Syria is bad, really bad for those of us who hope to see a more open and democratic regime there. The usual sources in Baba Amr, the Homs neighborhood that Bashar al Assad has been shelling for a month, have gone silent, apparently because elite Syrian army units are closing in from all sides. Electricity has been cut off. Violent resistance there will be, but sporadic and largely ineffectual. Expect widespread mistreatment of the civilian population, where the regime is trying to re-install the wall of fear that kept people in line for decades.
In the meanwhile, Kofi Annan, the newly appointed joint envoy of the UN and the Arab League, met in New York with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in the aftermath of still another UN Security Council meeting that failed to reach agreement on his mandate. Annan was modest in his goals:
It is a very difficult assignment. It is a tough challenge and the first thing we need to do as the secretary general has said is to do everything we can stop the violence and the killing to facilit[tate] humanitarian access and to ensure the needy are looked after and work with the Syrians in coming up with a peaceful solution which respects their aspirations and eventually stablizes the country.
My Twitterfeed is disappointed in his failure to mention transition (away from the Assad regime), but Annan is doing what a good diplomat should: lowering expectations and trying to ensure himself at least a first meeting with Bashar. He needs to keep his public remarks in line with the minimalist goals that Russia and China support. UN envoys don’t last long if one of the Perm 5 members of the UNSC object to what they are saying and doing, or a key interlocutor refuses to meet with them.
Kofi Annan knows as well as any of us that stabilization of Syria is not going to be possible with Bashar al Assad still in power. He betrays it with that adverb: “eventually.” Getting Bashar to step aside from power will not be easy. It will require convincing him that he is safer out of power than in it. Several Arab presidents have already chosen that route (Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh). Muammar Qaddafi preferred to fight, with well-known consequences. But Bashar will not like any of those precedents: exile in Saudi Arabia, a trial in his home country, exile in Ethiopia and murder victim are not attractive propositions. Maybe Tehran will be?
He will try to sell himself to Annan as a reformer: like the Bahraini and Moroccan monarchies or Algeria’s President Bouteflika, all of whom are engaged in modest reforms intended to co-opt protesters and maintain their regimes intact. Bashar will attribute his obvious excess use of force to the need to fight terrorism, a favorite excuse for violating human rights in this country as well as in Syria. There is just enough evidence of Al Qaeda in Iraq involvement in a few of the bombings in Syria to put some wind in that sail.
We should not expect Annan to get past Bashar’s defenses easily or quickly. As fallacious as the claims may be, he will have to listen and appear to appreciate them. Then, he needs to try to internationalize the situation as much as possible, by getting Arab League and UN monitors back into Syria to prevent renewed violence once a ceasefire is in place. He also needs to maintain his credibility with the Russians, so that he can talk with them about how their interests in port access and arms sales might be better served by a future, democratically-validated regime than by a declining Assad.
Annan will also need to reach out to the protesters in Syria and assure them that their pleas are heard and that their interests will be best served by returning to nonviolence, with international monitors in place to offer what protection they can, which is admittedly not much. In the meanwhile, the Free Syria Army and other militia groups will be arming, but hopefully not fighting. If the protesters resort to violence, Annan’s position will quickly become untenable as the regime returns to the battlefield.
Why is this not more like the situation in Libya or Kosovo, where the rebellions armed themselves and fought the regime tooth and nail? The answer is that the Syrians can be close to certain that no air force is coming to their rescue. The Americans and Europeans are showing no appetite for it. The Turks and Arabs seem almost as reluctant. If any of them were to change their minds and decide to throw their military weight behind the protesters, the situation would be different. But that is unlikely to happen.
Annan’s chances of success are low. But we should wish him the best in his efforts, which should begin as soon as possible. Delay or failure would mean continuation of a war the regime is bound to win.