Day: June 11, 2012

Observe the observers observing

I won’t even try to link to the multitudes who have declared the Annan plan for Syria a failure and the UN observers useless.  It is easy to prove the first proposition:  Bashar al Assad’s regime has not even withdrawn its heavy weapons, never mind fulfilled the five other points of the Annan plan.

But that does not make the UN observers useless.  To the contrary, what would we know about the massacre at Mazraat al-Qubeir if the UN observers had not gone in?  Even a visit two days later, after a thorough cleanup by the regime, was sufficient to conclude that something dreadful had happened.  It is vitally important that the UN observers continue their efforts and get the word out on what they find quickly and widely.  This is what makes current events in Syria so dramatically different from the massacre Bashar al Assad’s father committed twenty years ago in Hama, which remains even today less than fully documented.  It is still unknown how many thousands, or maybe tens of thousands, were killed.

Ground truth concerning what is going on in Syria is not only important for the international community but also for Syrians.  Last weekend’s “general” strikes (more like “souk closures”) in Damascus and Aleppo were reactions to the al-Houla massacre, also disclosed because of the post facto presence of the UN observers. Symbolic bazaari resistance undermines an important pillar of the regime–heretofore it was feeling little pressure from the merchant class to stop the crackdown.

The lot of the observers is not a happy one:  they are being shot at, blocked at checkpoints, threatened and likely worse.  But they are going about their work with determination and, it seems from afar, considerable skill and courage.  Will this end the parade of horrors the Syrian regime is committing?  Not likely.  Bashar al Assad has driven himself and his regime into a cul-de-sac.  His only hope of remaining in power is to escalate the violence further, in the hope of restoring the fear that is vital to the survival of autocracy.

The observers are however important.  They are revealing the facts of what is happening.  They are witnessing what otherwise might go unreported.  They are helping to keep up international pressure on the Assad regime.  They are inducing Syrians who previously supported the regime to reexamine their position.  They are embarrassing the Russians and Iranians, whose support for Bashar al Assad seems to be weakening.

None of this makes a resolution of the conflict in Syria imminent.  It could go on for a long time.  What we’ve got now is an insurgency that falls more or less in the civil war category.  Such conflicts are rarely settled quickly.  Only if Bashar al Assad can be persuaded to step aside, or if someone gets lucky and steps him aside, will it be possible to start the post-Assad political process that is the real purpose of the Annan plan.

Anne-Marie Slaughter argues against regime change as the international community objective.  Instead, she proposes that the international community should, in accordance with the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, create safe areas in Syria, where civilians will be protected by military means from the regime’s security forces.  This in my view is wrong:  it would leave Bashar al Assad in place, ruling over and abusing a large portion of the population and likely causing partition of Syria, an outcome inimical to peace and stability throughout the region.

Bashar al Assad is the problem.  Removing him is the solution.  Diplomatic means are likely to be far more effective in achieving that objective than military ones.  But that is not the purpose of the UN observers, who are there to observe.  They are doing a good job under difficult circumstances.  Let’s applaud their courage and determination.

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