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Bashar al-Assad may be beating Annan plan in Syria for now, but he won't for long

Putting UN monitors on the ground in Syria as part of Kofi Annan’s wider peace plan is a constructive step forward. But for now, Bashar al-Assad continues to set most of the terms. With more creative international action he will not be able to do so in the medium to long term.

By George A. Lopez / April 18, 2012

UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan attends a meeting with Arab League ministers in Doha, Qatar April 17 to discuss the situation in Syria. Op-ed contributor George A. Lopez says 'no one should be naive in thinking that the monitors...are a victory for outsiders trying to constrain or oust [Bashar al-Assad].' But he explains that 'the monitoring presence is not futile.'

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Notre Dame, Ind.

The unanimous Security Council resolution that puts UN monitors on the ground in Syria as part of Kofi Annan’s wider peace plan is a constructive step forward. The arrival Monday of the first half dozen monitors demonstrates the seriousness of many nations to end the killing in Syria.

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But not surprisingly, to create this possibility the council has been forced to engage in a new diplomatic dance with Bashar al-Assad where he continues to set most of the terms, at least in the short run.

Any move to limit or end the killing of Syrians is welcome. But no one should be naive in thinking that the monitors – even if allowed at some future date to enter Syria in full force at their projected 250 – are a victory for outsiders trying to constrain or oust Mr. Assad.

By permitting UN monitors, Assad accepts what at first appears to be a concession or even a political setback. But Assad believes this action makes him more indispensable to the Syrian future and increases his chances of survival, personally and politically. The Syrian leader is already manipulating this development to make himself more central to the future Syrian political process. And the more time and options Assad accumulates, the greater his chances of survival, personally and politically.

For example, Assad gets to veto individual monitors whose nationality he believes raises questions about their neutrality on the UN monitoring team. Assad has a major voice in where the monitors will go and for how long.  And at least for the moment, he alone can determine whether any negotiations with any of the opposition forces will occur.

Assad’s increased bombardment of city areas before the monitors’ arrival has generated cynicism and criticism of this UN effort as irrelevant. And Assad’s Russian patrons permitted only the most limited Security Council action. To secure Russian agreement, Western nations watered down nearly every meaningful demand made of Assad other than the monitors.

But the monitoring presence is not futile. Rather, the monitors’ documentation and related work, especially in making consistent demands of all fighting parties to end particular actions, can decrease the killing. The monitors provide a first, small crack in the previously closed door of Syrian repression.

The challenge now is how Mr. Annan and his allies can leverage this opening to increase options for violence reduction, for condemning cease-fire violations, and for increasing the constraints on Assad’s forces.

To assist this, the United Nations and its individual member states must push Assad to respond to every request and pressure him to cooperate with each provision of the Annan plan. Other diplomats must follow the lead of US Ambassador Susan Rice, who has aggressively named and shamed each Assad rejection of his humanitarian obligations.

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