Grasping at last straws

UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is said to have offered the UN Security Council on Thursday a “Plan C” for Syria along the following lines:

1. Syria’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity must be preserved.

2. A recognition that ultimate objective is for Syrians to have a full say in the way they are governed.

3. The formation of a transition government with “full executive powers.” Brahimi says he believes that means President Bashar al Assad “would have no role in the transition.”

4. Both sides would need to be represented by broad group of opposition leaders and strong military-civilian delegation from the Syrian government.

5. Negotiations should occur outside of Syria, and conform with a timetable setting out a speedy path towards elections, constitutional reform, and a referendum. He raised the prospect of moving from a presidential system of government to a parliamentarian system.

6. He urged the U.N. Security Council to unequivocally express support for the right of each citizen in Syria “to enjoy full equality before the law irrespective of gender, religion, language or ethnicity.”

This is more a slight elaboration last June’s Geneva communiqué than it is a new plan.

The leader of the Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al Khatib, appeared open to this when he let it be known that he would be prepared to meet with Syrian government representatives in one of a number of Middle East capitals, provided political prisoners were released and Syrians abroad permitted to renew their passports.  His Coalition was not happy though and has instructed him not to agree to anything without their approval.

So it is no surprise that meetings of some sort will occur on the margins of the “Wehrkunde” (Munich Security) conference on Saturday involving the al Khatib, Brahimi, the Russians and the Americans.  But it would be foolish to express any optimism that a political solution will be found.  The disappointments–Kofi Annan’s as well as Brahimi’s–have been many.

The vital question remains whether the Russians are willing and able to push Bashar al Asad aside and open the door to a democratic transition that he does not control.  There are doubts on both scores.  While Moscow officials often claim they are not trying to protect Asad, President Putin seems unwilling to give him a shove.  This could reflect incapacity, or at least fear of it.  But I doubt that.  If the Russians were to cut off arms supply, financing and diplomatic support, Bashar would be unlikely to last long.  More likely, it reflects Russian unwillingness to let the transition in Syria get out of Moscow’s grasp.

While nominally there is still a debate in Washington about intervention, I am still not seeing signs that the Obama Administration is seriously considering upping its game in Syria.  I suppose we really need to see the new Secretaries of State and Defense in place before we can be sure, but both have given every indication in their confirmation testimony that they are likely to be at least as cautious about U.S. military action as their predecessors.  Boots on the ground have long been ruled out, but Kerry and Hagel don’t seem likely to me to go for a no fly zone or even direct U.S. military supplies.

I still hope they will however see their way to strong political and financial support for the Syrian Coalition.  Al Khatib has stuck his neck out in an effort to give Brahimi something to work with.  The Americans and Europeans should be helping him to preserve his leadership role by giving him the resources needed to set up a transition government that can carry out the dialogue he said he was open to.  If we fail to support him, we’ll regret it.  The alternatives are far more hardline.  And continuation of the war in Syria is not in our interest.


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