The UN action in support of the call from special envoy Kofi Annan for a total ceasefire in Syria on 12 April is, like all security council presidential statements, a lot like a new year’s resolution – sincere, grounded in real needs and aspirations, but really difficult to implement.
Of the several different but linked issues at play here, three will determine its fate: the capacity of the security council to intervene in a sovereign state’s affairs; the Syrian government’s sense of its own durability; and the capacity of the opposition to challenge and change the Damascus ruling elite. And my impression is that the ability of the opposition groups to form a more coherent movement will be the crucial factor, drawing on the substantial support they have generated in the Middle East and around the world.
I say this because recent history suggests that the iron will of both the security council and stubborn sovereign governments tend to balance out each other. If military force is employed, as in Kosovo or Libya, global coalitions of states can oust governments. Barring that, only the determination, efficacy and sacrifice of authentic indigenous movements for freedom and citizens’ rights, teamed with global political support, can topple governments and usher in more democratic rule, as perhaps Burma demonstrates.
The security council has recently coalesced around a political position that calls for ending the fighting by all sides, and a negotiated political transition in Syria. This leaves open the fate of the Assad family and regime, which is why Russia, China and others – who had rejected moves led by the Arab League and US to demand that President Assad leave office – accept this position. This serious global intent does not guarantee all parties comply with the security council demands. Showing a seriousness and determination that transcend even the dramatic frowns and glares of Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, the council also warned of “further steps” should the Syrian government persist in its assaults on civilians.
The government and the Syrian National Council opposition have both agreed to the terms of Annan’s peace plan, which is fascinating, but not necessarily much beyond that for now. The SNC is very much the junior partner, given its limited military capability in the face of the government’s massive use of force. Even with the financing coming to its forces from Saudi Arabia and others, the SNC military wing can operate only in the realm of limited guerrilla attacks. Despite many accusations, nobody has presented convincing evidence of al-Qaida-like Salafi militants who are also said to be fighting the regime, including perhaps by setting off bombs in major cities.
The reality of the regime’s response to revolts since the early 1980s has been very clear: smash the opposition and punish their towns and neighbourhoods, so they never dare to revolt again. This is one important way in which Syria differs from other Arab revolutions. In Tunisia, President Ben Ali fled the country. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak sent camel-riding thugs to Tahrir Square. But Assad unleashed thousands of tanks, artillery, snipers, torturers, rapists and roaming killer gangs across the entire country. Assad’s track record since April 2011 has been consistent and unambiguous: strike hard to punish demonstrators and deter their supporters, and engage in any available diplomatic process only as a secondary track.
Assad’s problem is that his strategy, reflecting his father’s legacy from the 1970s and 80s, no longer works. The more he ravages largely unarmed civilian demonstrators who challenge his legitimacy, the greater becomes the intensity and breadth of the revolt, and the parallel support for removing him from around the region and the world. It is still unclear, though, how the growing determination among millions of Syrians to change their government will translate into practical political assets that could actually end Assad’s family rule.
This is the key to change in Syria. Action from abroad, including unanimous security council decisions, can only succeed if they enhance the opposition’s ability to whittle away the regime’s bases of support, especially through economic pressure that reduces the regime’s ability to pay its supporters and pacify the population.
Security council statements since the approval of the Annan mission indicate that international pressure on the Assad regime will continue – but this will only be a complementary arena to the more significant ability of the Syrian opposition movements to undermine the regime from within.
Rami G Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.