With Syria sinking into full-scale civil war, joint UN-Arab envoy to Syria Kofi Annan was right last week to call for an end to the “destructive competition” between Security Council members. Western powers’ efforts to shame and blame Russia for allegedly blocking political change are hypocritical when they support the accelerating flow of arms into the country, which only makes an eventual solution more costly in lives.
The past three months have seen a huge increase in clashes between armed rebels and government units as well as unremitting shelling of opposition strongholds by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes. Hundreds of civilians have died as well as scores of soldiers and police. Government supporters are being assassinated. The conflict’s militarization is bringing despair to many who came on to the streets last year to demonstrate for peaceful change. Syria’s identity as a place of religious tolerance and communal good-neighborliness risks being shattered for ever as Salafi fundamentalists and al-Qaeda-style bombers join the fray.
In spite of mounting losses, the government still believes it can win through superior force and the mass detention of activists. Its fallback is to hold out indefinitely in Damascus and Aleppo even if totally disarming the opposition proves impossible and other parts of the country are mired in perpetual insurgency. For their part, the rebels also count on victory. They bank on a Libyan-style NATO onslaught of massive air strikes once the US presidential election has passed. The CIA is already engaged in southern Turkey in funneling supplies to rebels, and the Turkish air force is gearing up for action.
Annan needs maximum support in persuading the parties that compromise is more realistic than seeking victory. His last-gasp talks with President al-Assad on Monday last week will be followed by meetings with the Syrian opposition. They will only bear fruit if world powers use their leverage on their friends to bring about a ceasefire and a political process that can lead to democratic reform.
The priority is an arms embargo. Russia should urge al-Assad to withdraw his heavy weaponry from cities and release detainees if the opposition also halts its attacks. Moscow must make it clear that Russian military supplies will cease if he does not comply. Iran should make similar commitments. In order to press the rebels to compromise, the West should publicly rule out military intervention under any circumstance and urge Qatar and Saudi Arabia to stop funding the arms race.
Calling on al-Assad to resign as a precondition for talks has failed. His term runs to 2014 and it would be better to use the intervening time to negotiate a government of national unity that can prepare for elections to a constituent assembly and make other reforms. Useful lessons can be drawn from Yemen, where a long-time ruler left office without outside military interference. Could Syria make a similar transition? It starts from a different place, alas.
About 265 civilians died at the hands of security forces in Yemen, far fewer than in Syria. Western states and the Arab League did not vilify Ali Abdullah Saleh by shouting that he had lost legitimacy. When he announced he would not seek re-election, it was less of a humiliation. An amnesty was given to him and his family, whereas al-Assad has been offered no such option.