In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iran's Supreme National Security Council secretary, Saeed Jalili, meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus Aug. 7., 2012. Op-ed contributor Benedetta Berti writes: 'Continued high-level defections, such as that of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab this week, may persuade Moscow and Beijing that Assad’s days in power are numbered.'

Next steps in Syria after Kofi Annan's exit

Last week’s resignation of Kofi Annan as joint special envoy for the UN and the Arab League for Syria was long overdue. The first steps now must be to coordinate an exit for Assad and increase urgently needed humanitarian aid.

Last week’s resignation of Kofi Annan as joint special envoy for the UN and the Arab League for Syria was long overdue. The first step in solving a problem is indeed admitting that you have one.

And the international community definitely has a problem when it comes to its approach to Syria. Divided about preferred outcomes and unable to see beyond parochial interests, the UN Security Council has failed both Syria and the UN mission to ensure international peace.

Mr. Annan had become a fig leaf for countries supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as for those standing behind the Syrian opposition forces. Both groups could claim they were “doing something” to solve the crisis.

So now what?

The guiding ideas in crafting an international response are well known, and Kofi Annan mentioned them again in his “farewell op-ed” in The Financial Times. First: The solution to the ongoing war will inevitably be political and focus on bringing together all the main domestic stakeholders, including the ruling Alawite community. Second: Strong international involvement is needed to provide all sides with credible incentives and security guarantees to sit at the negotiating table. Third: Assad must go.

The problem with Annan’s plan was that it should have started with this final point, recognizing that no real hope for a political transition exists short of getting Assad to leave. As such, stepping up pressure on both China and Russia to convince them to relinquish support for the Syrian dictator is imperative.

Continued high-level defections, such as that of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab this week, may persuade Moscow and Beijing that Assad’s days in power are numbered. But more effort should be made at convincing both capitals that by assisting with a transition, they have an opportunity to help shape “the day after.”

More sanctions may be too little too late to compel the dictator to go, but losing all international support – other than Iran – could have a stronger impact on Assad’s decision-making process. This may require offering Assad exile and immunity. So be it.

However, focusing too narrowly on Assad’s departure may lead the international community to miss the bigger picture and the importance of encouraging a political transition.

Syria is stuck in an all-out struggle between two sides that still see the outcome as a zero-sum game. As such, the chances for the post-Assad period to see a gradual end to the hostilities seem grim. Simply put, if not properly managed, the exit of Assad could lead his entourage to fight even harder, leading to more, not less, violence.

Here, the international community can play a positive role by attempting to bring all parties to the political table. To do so, both “pro-regime” and “pro-opposition” countries should work to provide incentives to bring the two sides to negotiate after the departure of Assad, while devising credible security guarantees for all Syrians.

For example, Western countries like the United States that are now increasing their assistance to Syrian opposition forces should ask the anti-Assad forces to reach out to the Alawite community and to some sectors within the regime. They should also make further assistance conditional on refraining from indiscriminate reprisals against the Alawites or any other sectarian group. This could make the difference between a negotiated transition and another round of war.

After Assad goes, the opposition may be tempted to disregard this path and try to push for a final military victory. But, the international community should highly discourage this. The price of completely wiping the Assad entourage out of Syria would be a longer, even bloodier, sectarian civil war.

The international community should also support those who are pushing nonviolent solutions in Syria. Networks of citizens, small organizations, and communities are involved in popular protests against the regime and are organizing aid to those most affected by the conflict. The “Syrian spring” started as a nonsectarian, nonviolent political mobilization and, despite all the violence, these initiatives are still being pursued. These groups have a crucial role to play, especially as the country becomes more radicalized and polarized around sectarian lines.

Finally, the international community should step up its present humanitarian assistance and cooperation in and around Syria, and push the Syrian government to allow more aid and personnel into the country. On this, both the “West” and “pro-Assad” countries such as Russia, ought to be able to agree.

With more than a million internally displaced persons and more than 3 million Syrians in need of food aid, this crisis requires increased international personnel on the ground and greater support for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross. So far, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has only been able to raise enough funds to cover roughly a third of what it needs for its Syrian Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan.

Similarly, the international community should help support the growing number of Syrian refugees – more than 200,000 so far – in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. The borders of all regional countries – including Israel – should remain open for them.

Annan has stepped down. But the work remains and the international community must pick up where he left off – starting with coordinated pressure for Assad’s exit and increased resources for humanitarian relief.

Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group, and coauthor of the book, “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Follow her on Twitter at @benedettabertiw.

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