With the toll from Friday’s attack on the Syrian village of Houla mounting well over 100 (including dozens of children), it is tempting to denounce the UN’s Annan peace plan as a dead letter. The European edition of the Wall Street Journal this morning headlines, “Syria Massacre Upends Fragile Hopes for Peace.” Others are even more explicit that Annan has failed, and have been saying so for months.
That is a mistake. The UN observers Annan directs did their job at Houla, verifying the incident and assigning blame to the regime. That is precisely what they are there to do. Unarmed, they have no capacity to intervene with force. The Security Council yesterday issued a statement, approved by Russia and China, condemning the Syrian government for the massacre. Minimal as it is, that counts as progress on the diplomatic front. Weaning the Russians from their client, Syrian President Bashar al Assad, is an important diplomatic objective.
The clarity of the UN observers may push the diplomacy further in the right direction. Moscow and Washington are apparently discussing a plan similar to the Yemen transition process, which involved a resignation of the president and a transition guided by the vice president. I have my doubts this particular scheme is viable in Syria, but there may be variants worth discussing that would provide reassurance to the Alawites while initiating a political process that will move the country definitively past the Assad regime.
That is the essential point. It is hard to picture the violence ending and politics beginning without dealing somehow with Alawite fears that they will end up massacred if Bashar al Assad leaves power. That would be a tragedy not only for the Alawites but for the Middle East in general. Let there be no doubt: past experience suggests that those who indulge in abusive violence often become the victims of it when their antagonists get up off the ropes and gain the upper hand.
It would be far better for most Alawites, the relatively small religious sect whose adherents are mainstays of the Assad regime, if a peaceful bridge can be built to post-Assad Syria. They will not of course trust those who have been mistreated not to mistreat them in turn. This is where the diplomats earn their stripes: coming up with a scheme that protects Alawites as a group from instant retaliation while preserving the option of eventually holding individuals judicially accountable for the Assad regime abuses. It is hard to picture a case more difficult than Syria, where the regime has managed to keep most Alawites loyal and used some of them as paramilitary murderers.
There really is no Plan B. The Americans cannot act unilaterally on Syria without losing Russian support in dealing with Iran on its nuclear program. President Obama’s top priority is stopping that program from advancing further toward nuclear weapons. While some think the American elections are a factor restraining the president on Syria, I don’t think he is likely to change his mind even if he wins. Only if he decides that the effort to stop a nuclear Iran has failed will he be tempted to cut the chord with the Russians and lead a military response to Bashar al Assad’s homicidal behavior, thus ending Syria’s alignment with a potentially nuclear Iran and shoring up the Sunni Arab counterweight. But he would only do that in the narrow window before Tehran acquires nuclear weapons, not afterwards.
The observers are supposed to be laying the groundwork for a political solution. Their mandate expires in July. That is the next big decision point. Annan needs to keep at it for now, hoping that the Russians and Americans come to terms and open a window for a political solution that ends the Assad regime.