Point of No Return

By William Dowell, July 5, 2012
(This article originally appeared in The Essential Edge)

While no one seriously advocates foreign military intervention, it is hard not to think of Syria these days as a kind of Rwandan genocide in slow motion. Up to 15,000 civilians have reportedly died so far and the regime shows no sign of slowing its killing.

 The 90-day mandate of UN observers runs out on July 20. Hardly anyone will notice since  the observers have dropped off the radar screen.They have been unable to get into the field since June 16.

The fiction continues, nevertheless, that Assad will somehow come around and begin to behave decently. It is hard, realistically, to see how or why Assad should do that now, especially with the Russians determined to cling to his crumbling regime, no matter what the cost. In that context, the dispatch of two Russian ships to a Russian naval base in Syria looks particularly sinister. 

With nearly 10,000 Syrian civilians dead, it is not clear whether the Russian's are trying to protect Assad despite his apaprent homicidal  determination to continue exterminating anyone who opposes him, or if the Russians are instead getting ready to pull out their own nationals in the event of a final collapse.  What is certain is that the rest of the world appears incapable of doing anything more than wringing its hands in anguish and giving a wide birth to anything that might possibly be taken for decisive action.

The latest Russian proposal looks at least on the surface like yet another artful dodge intended to let the killing go on.  The new plan is to convert the UN "observer" group into a transition team, tasked with letting Assad save face while he is eased out. 

The insurgents, not unreasonably, see this as another cowardly pretext for inaction while guaranteeing the regime time to finish the job of murdering anyone who opposes it. Regardless of the motives, it seems increasingly obvious that any transition beyond total removal of the Assad's regime, and notably the military commanders who have happily engaged in  the slaughter,  must now be unacceptable--not just to the Syrian opposition, but to the civilized world as well. 

The real casualty resulting from maintaining the fictional hope that Assad will leave voluntarily is likely to be the credibility of the UN. That is a shame. The true villain in the piece is unquestionably Russia's desperate and blind determination to hold on to the tattered remnants of its last client state in the region. The question is how far the Russians will go. Russia's mini flotilla presumably carries Russian marines on board. These could help during an evacauation, or they could try to shore up Assad's crumbling military.

With opposition attacks coming closer to Damascus and no sign of the opposition giving up, Moscow now faces a real dilemma: either the opposition wins and Russia is frozen out for the foreseeable future, or Assad manages to crush the resistance entirely, and Syria enters its own dark age and becomes essentially brain dead.  What is certain is that the opposition now sees Russia as responsible for the carnage that has taken place under Assad's name.

None of this has kept the UN’s Special Envoy, Kofi Annan, from heroically trying to accomplish the impossible.  Wednesday night, Kofi briefed reporters on the latest Security Council impasse.

The text of his remarks: 

 Transcript of the stakeout by the Joint Special Envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan,  Geneva, 11 July 2012

JSE: Good evening and thank you for your patience.  I have just come from briefing the Council and we discussed the crisis as you can imagine in Syria, my recent trip to the region and the outcome of the Action Group meeting here in Geneva. And the Council is now discussing what the next steps should be and what action they should take, so we should hear something from them in the next few days.  Since it is so late, let’s go straight to questions.

Q: Mr. Special Envoy, there are two points you can clarify for us. The first point is about what you have said after the meeting with President Bashar al Assad, about the three months time for a complete ceasefire step by step if I understand well. And another point here today, I listened to the President of the Syrian National Council, Abdelbaset Sieda, and he said you did not discuss with them any proposal or anything before your meeting with President Bashar al Assad and they said we don’t agree with the outcome of your meeting with President Bashar al Assad.

JSE: First of all let me say there was no question of three months. The operating vehicle, or tool, is the six-point plan which is endorsed by the Security Council in resolutions 2042 and 2043.  That frames everything.  Within that framework the discussion we had was to take action at those locations where one has such horrific violence that you can’t get in humanitarian assistance, people who are trapped couldn’t get out, and work out ceasefire arrangements at these localities with possibly the help of UNSMIS. This does not free anybody from the broader obligation of the ceasefire as indicated in the plan. So that is the idea -- whether it is in Homs, Hama or wherever. The question of consultation before going to see President Assad; this issue and this approach came after the discussion on the ground and in fact, the monitors who are on the ground will discuss, also on the ground, with the opposition.  And my team here in their contacts with the opposition outside will be doing the same.  I couldn’t have discussed the proposal with them before I went in, because there was no such proposal on the table.

Q: Mr. Kofi Annan, if I understood well, you got some support in the countries you have just visited.  Could you please elaborate on the kind of support and also concretely, what are the actions that they are going to take in order to put pressure on Syria?

JSE: First of all, when we met here as an Action Group, all the members of the Action Group undertook to maintain sustained and effective pressure on the parties to implement the Security Council resolutions and first of all to take steps to stop the violence so that we can move on to the political dialogue. In both Iran and Iraq, the governments committed to supporting the six-point plan. They supported the idea of political transition, which will be Syrian-led and allow the Syrians to decide what their future political dispensation will be. Obviously they are going to use their influence in talking to the government and the parties in moving in that direction.

Q: My question is about the United Nations Mission, what is its future because it’s a whole month almost that there is nothing, no activities.  And I also would also ask how you evaluate the Russian proposition, the draft resolution to extend the mandate of the mission. Thank you.

JSE: Yes, this is an issue before the Security Council. In fact, we do have a Russian resolution on the table and the British Ambassador indicated that the P3 would also be putting a resolution on the table shortly.  The Secretary-General’s report is before them and he has given options as to what should be done and the decision is up to the Council.

Q: From what we understood, the outcome of the Action Group Meeting the Saturday before last was a very rare and highly valued one. But last week we read reports of your interview with Le Monde, where you said something like the efforts to mediate for the Syrian conflict had kind of failed. So we were kind of confused. Exactly what did you say, what did you mean and was the sentence taken out of context?

JSE: Let me repeat or say what I meant: that we have not been successful so far, we have so far not succeeded in ending the violence and moving forward, and it is still the fact today.  And I was urging all governments to work together, to work together to press the parties and to support the one mediation effort so we can succeed in the goal we all share. And if we unite --and this issue came up in the Council again today-- if the Council speaks with one voice, that voice is much more powerful than when it is divided.  And in the region, governments have common interests. First of all, we all want to protect the Syrian people, we all want to see the end to the conflict, we all want to see an end to violence, we all want to make sure it does not get out of hand,  that the conflict doesn’t get out of hand and spread to the region. So we have lots of common interests. How do we work together to achieve that common interest rather than move in different directions, in a manner where everyone loses and the Syrians will become the greatest victims.

Q: Mr. Annan, did you discuss with Mr. Assad about the election of an interlocutor to begin the dialogue with the opposition? How is that going?

JSE: In all frankness yes, we discussed [this]. He did offer a name and I indicated that I wanted to know a bit more about that individual. So we are at that stage.  Thank you very much.

The six points of Kofi’s Plan:

(1) commit to work with the Envoy in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people, and, to this end, commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy;

(2) commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country.

To this end, the Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.

As these actions are being taken on the ground, the Syrian government should work with the Envoy to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism.

Similar commitments would be sought by the Envoy from the opposition and all relevant elements to stop the fighting and work with him to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism;

(3) ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and to this end, as immediate steps, to accept and implement a daily two hour humanitarian pause and to coordinate exact time and modalities of the daily pause through an efficient mechanism, including at local level;

(4) intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities, provide without delay through appropriate channels a list of all places in which such persons are being detained, immediately begin organizing access to such locations and through appropriate channels respond promptly to all written requests for information, access or release regarding such persons;

(5) ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them;

(6) respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.