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Kofi Annan, the United Nation's mediator in Syria, will present a new proposal today for bringing international powers on board with his peace plan in hopes of avoiding both a full-out war and international powers acting beyond the auspices of the UN.
Western powers, fed up with Russian and Chinese intransigence on stronger action against the Syrian government, began threatening last week to take action outside the United Nations Security Council. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice suggested they would have no choice but to act without UN authorization.
Much of the international community, as well as Syrians on the ground, have been calling the peace plan a failure for weeks. Violence has continued, and one of the most horrific events of the conflict – the Houla massacre, in which 108 Syrians were killed – happened several weeks after the cease-fire went into effect. There were reports yesterday of another massacre, this time in the village of Qubair in Hama region, with 86 dead, according to The Wall Street Journal.
UN monitors have so far been unable to get into the village to verify reports of the massacre, according to Reuters.
The thrust of Annan's proposal is a contact group that would bring the UN Security Council members – Russia, China, the US, Britain, and France – together with critical regional players, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, who back the rebels, and Iran, which supports President Bashar al-Assad, Reuters reports.
The goal is to create a plan for a "political transition" that would remove Mr. Assad from power and hold elections for his successor. The point of the contact group, according to diplomats speaking with Reuters, is to bring Russia on board with the idea of replacing Assad.
"We're trying to get the Russians to understand that if they don't give up on Assad, they stand to lose all their interests in Syria if this thing blows up into a major regional war involving Lebanon, Iran, Saudis," a Western diplomat told Reuters. "So far the Russians have not agreed."
Further details of Annan's plan were leaked to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. He writes that including Russia and Iran – the "key supporters" of Assad's survival – in the contact group gives them an incentive to help along his removal from power and the ability to protect their substantial interests in Syria.
The Russians’ participation could help stabilize Syria during the transition, because they might get buy-in from the Syrian military, many of whose senior officers are Russian-trained. As Syria’s main weapons supplier, Moscow has, over many decades, developed and cultivated contacts throughout the regime power structure.
Would Russia or Iran support this unconventional proposal? It’s impossible to know. In recent days, the United States is said to have held exploratory talks with Russian officials who apparently have indicated some interest. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said a week ago that Moscow wasn’t wedded to Assad’s remaining in power, but the Russians have done nothing to move the Syrian dictator toward the exit.
Russian news outlet RT reports that Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov said recently, “Moscow is not trying to keep Assad in power, his fate is in the hands of the Syrian people." And while in Beijing this week, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia considered it "necessary" to bring Iran into the diplomatic process because it has "real influence on different opposition groups," of which there are "not that many."
According to Ignatius, Russia has offered Assad exile, allowing him to avoid prosecution for war crimes.
But the inclusion of Russia and Iran also makes the plan a controversial one, he writes – some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, will not be happy about making Iran part of the diplomatic process. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran was "stage-managing" the Syrian government's crackdown and "reacted coolly" to the idea of including it more actively, according to Reuters.
Perhaps the biggest thing Annan's new proposal has going for it is the fact that there is still no other option that is palatable to the international community. All chatter about international intervention has been just that: chatter. The result of a failure is all too clear to everyone involved, Ignatius writes.
If Annan’s idea for a contact group proves to be a non-starter, there aren’t any obvious alternatives, other than a deepening civil war. Assad last week resisted the former secretary general’s de-escalation proposals, such as withdrawing Syrian troops from conflict zones and releasing political prisoners. And if progress isn’t made soon, Annan probably will have to abandon his peace effort — with all sides understanding this means a bloody war to the finish.