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.

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.'

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.

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.

The courageous recent report of a Human Rights Watch team that documented dozens of extra-judicial executions in Syria in March should receive wide international exposure. And a global call for International Criminal Court indictments of police and armed forces commanders leading such killings must be issued.

Other proactive initiatives will need to take advantage of the emerging realities that already exist to undermine Assad’s tactics. For example, the presence of UN observers might reawaken the Arab League and embolden them anew to narrow the military and political space available to Assad.

Even a part-time cease-fire might well permit more Syrian armed forces personnel to desert or defect than have been able to under conditions of continued fighting.

The multi-city Syrian protests following last Friday’s prayers undoubtedly demonstrate to Assad the costs of even a limited government cease-fire. Despite Assad’s brutal victories, the people are not cowed by fear of coming back to the streets in significant numbers, especially if they can assume (or hope) the government will not kill them.

Their numbers will undoubtedly grow and their actions will become more bold every Friday and at each funeral. Thus the monitors and Annan must assure the right of peaceful protests as a fulcrum to political dialogue with the opposition.

And Annan, the US, and others must continue to dialogue with the Russians. Despite verbal support for Assad, there are some signs that Russian patience with him is wearing thin. Chaos is a condition Assad believes will favor his claim that he is fighting terrorists and that only his survival provides hope for the future. But Russia fears such chaos and its regional implications, and this may make it open to different strategies with Syria.

Until now, Assad has countered every step forward that outsiders take to end violence in Syria. But as with other murderous dictators, Assad’s over-confidence and miscalculations will get the best of him.

Outsiders can hasten this end by closing every small space they can in which Assad will try to maneuver. For now, he may be able to sidestep the constraint of UN peace monitors. But with more concentrated and creative international action to bolster the monitors and the Annan plan, Assad will not be able to do so in the medium to long term.

George A. Lopez holds the Hesburgh Chair in Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. A former member of a UN sanctions expert panel, he writes frequently on the Security Council and UN sanctions.

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