The 90 day ultimatum

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice used today’s passage of UNSC Security Council resolution 2043 authorizing deployment of 300 UN observers to Syria to issue an ultimatum:  the Syrian government needs to fully comply with the six-point Annan plan or else.

Or else what?  The explicit threat was not to renew the observer mission.  But Rice was trying to imply more than that:

…let there be no doubt: we, our allies and others in this body are planning and preparing for those actions that will be required of us all, if the Asad regime persists in the slaughter of the Syrian people.

There are not a lot of good options out there. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday revealed few.  Tightening sanctions is one, but the Russians resisted including that in the resolution. Maybe they will be willing to do it if Damascus continues to defy the Security Council for another 90 days.  An arms embargo is another. But arms embargoes are normally enforced against a country, not only a government. The Russians are unlikely to allow one to pass that applies to Damascus but not the Free Syria Army.  While I am not in favor of a violent uprising, it would be profoundly unjust to deny Syrians the means to defend themselves.

Then there is the option Rice was presumably trying to imply: military action, by NATO and/or a coalition of the willing.  I still see little prospect of this happening, though three more months of Syrian government defiance could change the picture.

Unfortunately what the 90-day ultimatum does in the meanwhile is to give Bashar al Assad a three-month hunting license.  It is now in his interest to get the observers in as quickly as possible, since no military action can be taken while they are deployed in Syria.  He’ll try to use the 90 days to bag as many protesters as possible.  It would have been far better to deploy them with no fixed time limit, or with a shorter one requiring re-authorization by the Security Council. The reports the Secretary General is required to make every 15 days are a useful mechanism to keep international attention focused on implementation of the Annan plan, but they don’t provide the same leverage that a shorter authorization would have done.

That said, the key is to get the Syrian army out of artillery range of population centers.  Randa Slim wisely reminds us that local leaders in Syria have the capacity to put hundreds of thousands–maybe millions–into the streets if peace protests are permitted, as required by the Annan plan.  This she suggests would be a game changer.

I agree.  Syria needs no more than a couple of days of relative peace for the people to show unequivocally and peacefully their preference for Bashar al Assad’s departure.  If the observers can help to give them those days, their deployment will be worthwhile.  If not, withdrawal in 90 days will be the right move.  But then it will be incumbent on the Obama Administration to have a plan for what comes next.


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