The Syrian crisis is at a crucial crossroads, with one path preserving the option for a “soft landing,” while the other portends a descent into a protracted sectarian conflict.
Hoping to avert a civil war, the United Nations has accelerated efforts to stave off the bloodshed and encourage a peaceful political transition via the “Annan Plan.” As Syria spirals deeper into violence, the U.N.-backed plan is rapidly unraveling, but still represents the last, best chance for avoiding widespread conflict in Syria. The Annan Plan embodies an unprecedented international consensus on Syria, including Russia and China, which could be leveraged to impose significant consequences on the Syrian government if the plan collapses.
The Syrian uprising is the most brutal of the Arab revolts. The U.N. estimates that more than 9,000 people have died, while a British-based Syrian organization puts the figure at 11,000. Human rights groups have accused the Syrian government of widespread illegal detentions, torture, and extrajudicial killings. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has reported evidence that Syrian forces have committed crimes against humanity. Syria’s armed opposition has also been accused of human rights abuses. The U.N. estimates that the conflict has created 61,000 refugees and displaced 230,000 people internally.
Prompted by Syria’s deteriorating humanitarian situation, the U.N. has spearheaded efforts to find a peaceful resolution, led by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan successfully negotiated a six-point plan to end the violence and address numerous political and humanitarian concerns. A spotty cease-fire went into effect April 12, with Syrian government shelling continuing in hotspots including Hama, Homs, and the Damascus suburbs. Other key elements of the plan include a total pullback of Syrian troops from population centers, release of detainees, the right of Syrians to protest peacefully, and the provision of humanitarian aid.
The Annan plan has been backed by two unanimous Security Council resolutions, paving the way for the initial deployment of several unarmed U.N. military observers, expected to eventually increase to 300 under the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). The mission is charged with monitoring the cease-fire and the Annan Plan’s “full implementation.” The Security Council resolution establishing the mission concludes by noting its intention to “consider further steps as appropriate” should it assess that implementation is not forthcoming.
Understandable skepticism surrounds the plan; the Syrian government has little motivation to comply with its six points. Withdrawing its troops and heavy weapons from population centers could well prompt tens of thousands of Syrians into the streets in peaceful protests, facilitating the “Tahrir moment” that the regime has long feared. Instead, in agreeing to the plan, the Syrian government likely seeks to accomplish three goals: buy time while it aggressively pursues its opponents; keep Russia on its side; and preserve its domestic support.
Moreover, the Syrian government could derail the plan by either stalling the conclusion of a Status of Mission Agreement outlining the U.N. mission or attempting to insert significant loopholes in the agreement impeding the observers’ ability to carry out their mission. Even in the best of circumstances, the mission entails significant risk. Deploying 300 unarmed military observers in a volatile environment could both imperil the observers and render them ineffective in the face of massive government force. Already, in some instances, the observers’ presence appears to have endangered Syrians who have spoken to them, only to be targeted by government reprisals after the observers leave. The observers themselves could also become targets of violence.
Despite these significant risks, the Annan Plan should not be abandoned. The international consensus forged to date by the Annan Plan, is perhaps its most powerful asset. In a recent statement, the Arab League secretary general underscored the significance of the U.N. plan’s international consensus on Syria. Building on this consensus, the U.N. must swiftly negotiate a mission status agreement that guarantees the mission’s ability to work effectively. It must seek to deploy monitors as quickly as possible and ensure their ability to travel throughout Syria unhindered. At the same time, the Security Council must begin discussions on consequences for non-compliance with the resolution and status agreement and ensure that the Syrian government is fully informed of these potential consequences.
Should the U.N.-backed plan collapse under the weight of Syrian intransigence and continued violence on the ground, the United States, Europe and their regional allies should work closely with Russia and China to seek a broad consensus on these next steps. Rushing to arm the Syrian opposition or seek other military options would put a decisive end to this fragile unity, heightening the possibility of a multi-level proxy war in Syria.
Instead, a multilateral effort to devise consequences for Syrian intransigence should leverage Russia and China’s support for the Annan plan into concerted action against Syria for violating it. U.N. economic sanctions and an international arms embargo should be the centerpiece of these efforts, tightening the noose around the Assad regime's neck, while hopefully slowing the descent into civil war.
Mona Yacoubian is a senior advisor in the Middle East/Southwest Asia program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-D.C.-based non-profit, non-partisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security. She previously served as a special advisor and senior program officer on the Middle East at the US Institute of Peace, where her work focused on Lebanon and Syria.