Assad's actions in Syria spur US to consider intervening

The ongoing violence in Syria, despite the regime's lip service to the Annan peace plan, has pushed the Obama administration to weigh stronger steps.

Syria TV via AP video/AP
This image made from video made available by Syrian TV shows United Nations observers during a visit to Homs, Syria, Saturday, April 21, 2012. Five U.N. truce monitors ventured Saturday into the heart of the Syrian uprising, one of the hardest-hit opposition strongholds, and were thronged by residents clamoring for foreign military help to oust President Bashar Assad.

The European Union slapped new sanctions on the Syrian regime on Monday, a gesture of further international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad amid widespread pessimism over UN envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.

The United Nations Security Council on Saturday authorized the deployment of up to 300 unarmed military observers to monitor a tenuous cease-fire in Syria that formally came into effect on April 12 as part of the Annan plan. But violence has continued since then and US officials have hinted that a failure by the Assad regime to honor the six-point Annan plan could lead to UN sanctions being imposed even before the expiry of a 90-day deadline for its implementation.

Yet given international divisions over how to address the crisis in Syria, as well as doubts about the viability of the Annan plan, the question remains: If the peace plan founders, what’s next?

“No one here [in Washington] thinks the Annan plan is going to work,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This plan does not deal with the disease itself. The disease is very simple. You have a minority-dominated regime that is not about to give up power, that has a 42-year record of not being able to reform, ruling over an opposition carved out of one of the youngest populations in the Middle East outside the Palestinian territories. It’s just a storm.”

The Obama administration, increasingly convinced that the situation is likely to deteriorate – with potentially dire consequences for regional security – is steering toward a more assertive action on Syria. That shift could encourage other countries who have been awaiting a US lead to play a more direct role in supporting the Syrian opposition.

Details of the Annan plan

Annan’s plan includes calls for a cease-fire from both sides, the delivery of humanitarian aid, a Syrian-led process to address opposition demands, the release of political detainees, allowing foreign reporters into the country, and permitting peaceful demonstrations.

Although the Syrian regime accepted the Annan plan, the violence has persisted, albeit at a lower rate from before. The UN says more than 9,000 people have died in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011.

The Syrian National Council, the main opposition body, welcomed the UN observer mission, saying that more monitors must be deployed so that “their presence allows the civilian population to reassert its right to peaceful demonstration.”

However, that is the outcome that the Syrian authorities fear the most. If Syrian security forces and heavy armor are withdrawn from cities, the opposition protesters emboldened by the presence of UN observers could resume anti-regime demonstrations with even greater vigor than the initial protests a year ago. If those demonstrations were to spread unchecked to the centers of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, the Assad regime would face a very grave situation.

On the other hand, the Syrian opposition is uninterested in another component of Annan’s plan that calls for dialogue with the Syrian authorities. As far as the opposition is concerned, negotiations with the regime are futile unless they are restricted to discussing a speedy end to Assad’s rule, a condition that the Syrian leadership would reject.

“There’s no point in talks with the regime. We have nothing to talk about. We want Assad gone. That’s it,” says Ahmad, a Syrian activist living in hiding in north Lebanon.

Potentially more complex than Iraq

Although the Annan plan is still in the early stages of implementation, the pessimism that surrounds it has left policy planners in the US and Europe mulling alternative options should it fail in the weeks ahead. The administration of President Obama has limited its actions toward Syria to rhetoric and sanctions, evidently reluctant to be drawn back into the Middle East only months after ending its military involvement with Iraq and while in the process of drawing down in Afghanistan.

Certainly, Syria, a seething cauldron of sectarian and ethnic turmoil and an emerging new regional battleground, is potentially even more complex and dangerous than Iraq.

According to Randa Slim, a Washington-based scholar at the Middle East Institute and an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation specializing in Syrian affairs, the conflict in Syria has three components:

  • an existential struggle between the Assad regime dominated by the minority Alawite sect and a lightly-armed, mainly Sunni opposition
  • a regional power struggle between Iran, an ally of the Syrian regime, and Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni Arab power
  • an international test of wills between the US and Russia and China, both of which back the Assad regime.

“If the current state of play at any of these levels is not altered significantly, the current stalemate can endure for some time,” Ms. Slim says. “In the meantime, sectarian polarization will deepen and the country will keep its descent toward what is becoming an inevitable scenario: a sectarian war pitting Alawites against Sunnis with potential spillover into neighboring countries.”

Obama administration's shift

According to political and diplomatic sources in the Middle East and Washington, the Obama administration in recent weeks has come to the the conclusion that the Syria crisis is not going to fizzle out but probably worsen, with serious ramifications for regional security.

“A direct US military intervention does not seem to be there right now,” says Mr. Tabler of the Washington Institute. “But ironically, Assad’s actions have spurred the US into thinking along those terms.”

As such, the Obama administration is reviewing its policies toward Syria. Derek Chollet, the senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council who helped shape Libya policy last year, reportedly has been appointed head of the interagency Syria policy team. He replaces Steve Simon, the NSC senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, who will remain on the team.

Furthermore, Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Damascus, who won praise in Washington for his outspoken criticism of the Assad regime’s crackdown on protestors before his recall in October when the Obama administration closed the embassy, has been given a greater role on the Syria policy team.

Washington for now has ruled out providing weapons and ammunition to the military units comprising the rebel Free Syrian Army, but US officials say that aid is being delivered to the civilian political opposition.

“We’re going to be pushing some pretty significant non-lethal assistance to the unarmed opposition,” says one US official involved with Syria policy. “Things are actually starting to move.”

Other countries may follow suit

If the US is seen as playing a stronger role in supporting the Syrian opposition it could encourage other countries, in particular Turkey and some Gulf states opposed to the Assad regime, to follow suit, analysts say.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to have been providing funds to some armed opposition groups and the Saudi foreign minister has openly advocated sending weapons to the ill-equipped and poorly armed FSA. But there are no indications that the FSA has received fresh supplies of armaments and it appears to be still dependent on a trickle of weapons smuggled into the country or raiding military arsenals.

Even if arms are dispatched into Syria along with non-lethal equipment such as communications and night-vision goggles, it may not prove enough to tip the balance in the opposition’s favor.

“The case is not made yet whether arming the opposition by itself will be enough to alter the power imbalance between the regime and the rebels in favor of the latter,” says Slim of the Middle East Institute. “It is likely that in order to redress the imbalance, a military intervention to create safe zones will be necessary in addition to arming the opposition.”

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