On June 16th, UN observers in Syria suspended their monitoring activities and were withdrawn to their headquarters. According to the head of the UN Stabilisation Mission, the Norwegian General Robert Mood, the reason to ground the monitors was that their safety could not longer be guaranteed amidst the current escalation of violence. While this does not mean that the UN observers are already bound to leave the country, it is a worrying sign since it mirrors the behaviour of the Arab League monitors who entered Syria at the beginning of the year only to flee the country shortly after, and without having accomplished any of their objectives. However, the most important issue is that the recent development of the crisis is confirming what many feared: UN peace envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan is nearly dead. Although nobody was really optimistic about this plan’s possibilities when it was presented in March and accepted by all parties in conflict, now we have jumped to the full realization that something has gone truly wrong. It is necessary now to look back and try to find the flaws in the handling of the crisis to set the right course.
The main question to be asked is about the clarity of objectives when it comes to the Syrian crisis. In an ideal world in which the primordial end was the security of those civilians suffering the conflict, the main goal would be to stop the violence and the killing of civilians. Yet for most parties involved, either externally or internally, this is secondary at best. The problem is commitment: every party has its own objectives which overshadow the attainment of peace, that is, the immediate end of the slaughter. There is indeed a conflicting agenda over Syria, and this is central to analyse the questionable behaviour of the United States and its allies. This has had a deep and negative impact on the implementation of Annan’s diplomatic efforts. At the core there is an issue that is as old as mediation itself: impartiality. The West has disregarded this principle and further jeopardized peace.
At the beginning of April, days before the six-point plan supposedly came into force, the international platform Friends of Syria agreed to fund the rebels by supporting the Syrian National Council (SNC), the sector of the opposition which favours the use of violence against the regime of Bashar al Assad.Others, like the National Coordination Body, prefer a non-violent solution. Later, the media reported that the US was helping several Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia to coordinate arm supplies to Syrian rebels, with Russia doing its part to support Damascus. Clearly, these states are playing a dual and dangerous game: on the one hand, they say they support a peaceful solution to the crisis; on the other, they pour weapons into Syria days before the deadline to implant an UN-sponsored ceasefire. Consequently, as time passed it was clear that neither Damascus nor the opposition were willing to stop their operations. Most importantly, it started to be difficult to conceal the fact that the opposition, empowered by those arm shipments, had more interests in maximizing its military goals than in sticking to the peace plan. This further escalated the violence. But even then, it was relatively rare to hear Western policy makers asking the armed opposition to stop their military manoeuvres and halt the abuses they were committing.
It is not the first time supporting militarily rebels backfires this way: an interesting parallel happened when the West publicly sided with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). At that time, when it was clear that the KLA was ignoring the truce that preceded NATO’s air campaign even more than the Serbian army, yet the West also turned a blind eye. Up to date, in Syria we have got the exact opposite to an unbiased mediation. Just take, for example, the words of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon when he says that Assad “has lost all legitimacy”, undermining the diplomatic position of Kofi Annan, who in fact has recently called for a unity government to end the crisis.
The reason that explains this contradictory policy is that Syria is the scenario of proxy wars. Unfortunately for the people living there, Syria rests on the fault lines of the Middle East; it is a tremendously important geopolitical actor. Annan puts it very graphically: “Syria is not Libya; it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders”. He is correct. Assad is a fundamental piece in geopolitical chess. Certainly, great and regional powers have high stakes in the outcome of the crisis.
At a regional level, it is easy to understand the stakes for countries like Turkey and Israel. Netanyahu’s government has remained silent and will continue like that since Assad, despite its brutality internally, is still preferable to an unpredictable power vacuum in Syria. Ankara, for its part, is now being more vocal against Assad and is suspected to aid the rebels, but this is not something Erdogan had wished. The economic and political ties between the two countries are profound –they both share the problem with the Kurds’ pro-independence aspirations-, and for Turkey its relation with Syria is crucial to present itself as an important Middle East peace maker. In fact, before the Arab spring broke out, Erdogan acknowledged that the Assads “became part of [his] family circle”.
From a global perspective, Russia’s power struggle in the area has been thoroughly discussed already. Russia is driven not only by strategic and arms trade concerns, but also by the somewhat paranoid fear that backing any form of intervention in the country would threaten the Kremlin’s power elite. However, the main factor that has affected Annan’s peace plan is the rivalry between Iran, on one side, and the United States and its allies, on the other. For the West, it all boils down to the question of either pursuing peace or, instead, trying to weaken Assad –and, by extension, Tehran- by using the SNC and its fighters, the Free Syrian Army. The dilemma is choosing between saving lives or forcing regime change, and the outcome might be completely different if the latter gets priority over the former. Now that Syria is on the very verge of complete civil war, we have seen how siding with the rebels and focusing on bringing down Assad has only meant a higher death toll. It has encouraged both an emboldened opposition and Assad himself to fully embrace violence and rule out any other kind of engagement. If this is to be avoided, then a fundamental transformation in the way the issue is being tackled is needed. As a first step, this implies abandoning hypocrisy.