Both sides violating Syria cease-fire. Still worth supporting?

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon called on all parties in Syria to stand by the cease-fire, which has been repeatedly violated by both the government and the opposition.

Khaled al- Hariri /Reuters
United Nations observers travelling in UN vehicles leave the UN office in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, May 1, as they head to areas where protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been taking place.

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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued another call today for all parties in Syria to respect a cease-fire that was violated almost as soon as it began thee weeks ago.

Lacking any alternatives at the moment, the UN and international and regional powers are continuing to focus their efforts on the UN observer mission that is being deployed to Syria and the cease-fire that the observers are meant to be monitoring. At this point, 30 of the 300 intended monitors have been deployed so far.

Meanwhile, fighting continues. Bombing by government forces killed 10 civilians in Idlib today, while suicide bombings of government security buildings – reportedly by opposition forces – killed 20 yesterday, mostly security personnel, Agence France-Presse reports. The Syrian National Council insists the government is behind the bombing of its own buildings in a bid to undermine the opposition.

The New York Times describes the current situation as a "stalemate."

The result is a bloody stalemate, with the West still endorsing a peace plan even while calling it unrealistic, and the Syrian government, if anything, empowered by the paralysis, even more confident it can weather the fractured and diffuse international pressure.

Despite months of fighting, Western and Arab sanctions that have sapped the national treasury and defections that have eroded the unity of the military, the Syrian government is not on the verge of falling nor abandoning its use of lethal force.

The rest of the world, fearing the chaos that further militarizing the conflict might bring, remains reluctant to arm the opposition.

But the opposition appears to be taking care of arms itself. While opposition groups have disputed claims that they are behind the most recent bombings and some that came earlier this year, Reuters reports that their offensive tactics are shifting from "small-scale ambushes on checkpoints and military patrols to audacious assaults on infrastructure and symbols of the Assad state."

"The rebels are getting better at bomb-making – as you know, desperation is the mother of invention," one anti-Assad fighter who claimed to be in command of a militia unit told Reuters in neighbouring Lebanon. "We are starting to get smarter."

A separate Reuters report corroborates such claims. Rebels chalked the shift up to economics – guns are increasingly expensive, while bombs, which can be made, are comparatively inexpensive. 

"We are starting to get smarter about tactics and use bombs because people are just too poor and we don't have enough rifles," a rebel fighter from the north of Idlib province said last week as he took a break across the border in Turkey.

"It is just no match for the army," said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "So we are trying to focus on the ways we can fight."

However, mindful of Assad's portrayal of those who have opposed him over the past 14 months as "terrorists", and keen to maintain Western and Arab support, several rebel fighters who spoke to Reuters said that, unlike al Qaeda, their bombs were aimed at military, and never civilian, targets.

"We are not targeting civilians. We are strictly going against regime targets," said Haitham Qdemati, spokesman for a rebel group called the Syrian Liberation Army. "We're not killers. We're defending ourselves."

There are a number of theories about who is behind the bombings of the last couple months: the government, trying to discredit the opposition; Al Qaeda-linked Syrian Islamists with experience fighting in Iraq; and the mainstream opposition, despite its denials. 

The Monitor reported yesterday that Syria's uprising may be drawing militants looking for new opportunities after Iraq and Afghanistan, although at least some appear to be Syrian nationals; a salafi jihadist group has claimed responsibility for recent suicide bombings, and the names of its leader and one of its martyrs suggests they hailed from Damascus and the Golan Heights. But a prominent Lebanese militant was among those recently killed.

Earlier this year Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Muslims in neighboring countries to assist Syria's opposition. But rebels and opposition figures haven't appeared to welcome the call; they deny they are receiving help from Al Qaeda and insist the uprising is being fueled by domestic forces.

"The only Al Qaeda cells that operate in Syria are those manipulated by Assad's security apparatuses," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a US-based Syrian opposition activist in an online newsletter emailed [Monday]. "The suicide bombings are directly staged or facilitated by them. Issues pertaining to the timing and the real beneficiaries, and everything we know about the Assads' involvement in terror networks, all point in this direction."

Recently, prominent US senators have declared that the UN peace plan for Syria has failed. But such declarations are premature, says Marc Lynch of Georgetown University. In April 25 testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, posted on his Foreign Policy blog, he said: 

"It is time for the Obama Administration to acknowledge what is obvious and indisputable in Syria: the Annan Plan has failed." This declaration by Senators Lieberman, McCain and Graham on April 19, 2012, came only one week after a United Nations-backed ceasefire came into effect, and two days before the passage of a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing a 300 member team to monitor the ceasefire.  The urgent, and admirable, imperative to do something to help the people of Syria should not rush the United States into a poorly conceived military intervention. The painstakingly constructed international consensus in support of diplomacy and pressure should not be abandoned before it has even had a chance.

It is far too soon to give up on a diplomatic process which has just begun.  Rather than rush into a risky, costly and potentially counter-productive military intervention, the United States should give the current plan time to work.  It should continue to lead international efforts at the United Nations, promote the demilitarization of the conflict, continue to increase the pressure on the Assad regime, build on the efforts underway with the "Friends of Syria" group, support the political development of the Syrian opposition, and prepare the ground for future accountability for war crimes.

Prof. Lynch's full testimony is available here.

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