Kofi Annan’s Syria Mission: Short Term Gains, Long Term Pains

WASHINGTON — At face value, the Kofi Annan plan for Syria — aimed at ending the bloodshed and potentially initiating a political solution for the 13-month-old uprising and crackdown — has succeeded in “engaging” the Bashar al-Assad regime. Damascus has pledged cooperation, even while it has yet to abide by any of its terms. A process is thus presumably in place to either ensure compliance and usher a new phase of peaceful deliberations out of the quagmire in Syria, or to convince international skeptics (Russia, China) that more forceful measures are necessary.

A cynical, albeit unfortunately popular, way of assessing these “successful” first steps is that the Annan plan merely provides an unwilling and/or incapable West with a thin cover of rhetoric consistency while allowing the regime to pursue its brutal attempts at a military solution, backed by the logistic and strategic support of Russia and Iran. A more charitable reading may point to the fact that the options available for Washington and other Western capitals are severely limited. A course that establishes a baseline of international legitimacy for forceful intervention down the line may be deficient, but is arguably the sole path currently available. However, such an assessment ignores the longer-term implications.

In its over-reaction to the early protests in its southern city of Dar’a in March of last year, the Syrian regime may have transformed what could have been a limited call for reform of the administrative and security systems into an anti-regime uprising. While clearly cognizant of the poor choices made by his fellow dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and emboldened by the material support provided by his Iranian allies who successfully survived a protest movement in 2009, Assad was still unequipped to counter the broad-based and largely peaceful uprising that was challenging his regime. His brute force approach is better suited for responding to a factional violent rebellion. His strategy has been a self-fulfilling prophesy — by treating the peaceful challengers as violent rebels, he has turned many of them into exactly that, which he then uses to justify the brute force.

Sadly, this “radicalize and eradicate” strategy has shown some degree of success ― mainly the “radicalize” part. Months of regime brutality have changed the inclusive peaceful face of the Syrian revolution into a more militant, more ideologically charged one. Still, despite repeated attempts by the regime to strike the revolutionary hotbeds, the battles rage on. In the calculations of some regional and international stakeholders (including Iraq, Egypt, and arguably China), the survival of the regime is thus recast as the lesser of the two evils that haunt Syria’s future. While committed to holding the regime accountable for its crimes, the Western alliance itself seems to be seeking assurances from the Syrian opposition that actual measures will be effective in countering the dire future predicted by such cautious observers.

Realistically, such assurances are of increasingly lesser value. The credibility of the Syrian political opposition in exile is severely strained by its inability so far to deliver any concrete result to the uprising. Protesters have been loudly demanding a modicum of international protection for months. The apparent futility of the Annan mission is further recycled into a narrative of abandonment and, with more frequency, of complicity in an attempt to defeat the revolution. The Annan mission allocates months for an observer effort, when non-compliance is a foregone conclusion, and further time for negotiations at the Security Council, where Russia’s steadfast support for the Assad regime would pre-empt any meaningful measure. This strategy is characterized in the Arab press as a means to ensure that no Syrian operation would disrupt the U.S. electoral process, even at the cost of an eroding future for Syria.

Ill-will interpretations notwithstanding, the regime’s treatment is causing considerable damage to the opposition. The civil revolution of the Syrian people is salvageable, but the odds of a positive outcome are receding with time, and will be long depleted by the end of the time frame laid out by the Annan mission. For what would be miniscule gains in confirming the regime’s already proven deceit, there is certain to be a severe disruption of the regional order, with Syria plunging into murderous chaos and serving as a base for destabilization well beyond its borders.

This foreseeable calamity is too grave to wait for an indeterminate solution. With the territory held by the rebels evaporating in front of disproportionate attacks by regime forces, some elements for bold action in Syria have already been lost. Yet, this regime — which survives largely by promoting the perception of having maneuvered out of the risk of collapsing — was (and still is?) susceptible to crumbling when faced with serious international resolve. The Annan mission has sent exactly the opposite message.

Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington.