Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Syria's al-Assad gaining strength under U.N. moves, experts say

syria-protest-13-story-top Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is strengthening his grip on the country during the relative decrease in violence brought on by U.N. demands, according to several experts.

Although the goal of countries in supporting the cease-fire was to halt the killings and pave the way for peaceful reforms, the reality is just the opposite, the analysts argue.

Five days after the cease-fire was supposed to begin, dozens of Syrians are still being killed daily, according to opposition activists. Syria continues to blame the violence on "armed terrorist groups" and says its law enforcement officers and civilians are being killed.

The violence may be lower than it was through much of the brutal 13-month crackdown on protests, but troops still are stepping in to halt some demonstrations, the analysts said.

Rather than taking a step toward peace and allowing greater freedom, al-Assad is using this time to send the message to the United Nations that his forces are needed in the streets to prevent mass chaos, the analysts suggested.

"He wants U.N. blessing to grind down and destroy the opposition," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And the way this is being implemented, he's well on his way to achieving that."

Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Middle East policy during the administration of President George W. Bush, said al-Assad decided to "make believe" he's "going along with the deal" and reducing violence, while actually keeping the pressure on within the country "so the opposition knows they're not going to be permitted to win."

Several analysts said the United Nations is, yet again, demonstrating its lack of effectiveness.

"I don't think the Security Council is going to prove useful," Abrams said.

Some took a more optimistic tone, however. George Lopez, who chairs the Peace Studies program at the University of Notre Dame, said the U.N. monitoring team that has gone to Syria could take steps to decrease the killings. And other international institutions can take advantage of this time to achieve progress in the effort as well, he argues.

The central problem, according to several experts, is that the United Nations is focusing on diplomatic efforts rather than on ousting al-Assad, who has demonstrated his commitment to using regime forces despite all sorts of international calls.

But forcing al-Assad's departure simply isn't a choice, Abrams said. And some steps that could cripple Syria's economy may not be either, he said. "You could ground aircraft. You could say that there should be no commercial air traffic to or from Syria, which would be a real blow to their economy, to their business community."

But U.N. options are limited by what two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council have to say.

"The real answer is it all depends on what Russia and China will permit," said Abrams, now senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The two countries, which have trade deals with the regime, previously rejected a U.N. resolution on Syria.

Some of the steps taken during the uprising in Libya, which involved support for implementing a no-fly zone over the country, simply won't happen, Abrams said.

The late ousted strongman Moammar Gadhafi in Libya "was unique" and without alliances within the Security Council, Abrams said. But Russia views Syria under al-Assad as its "last ally in the Middle East," he argued. "They're not going to let them go."

If Kofi Annan, envoy to Syria for both the Arab League and the United Nations, were to announce that his mission and the six-point cease-fire plan had failed due to Syrian actions, "that would put enormous pressure on the Security Council," Abrams said. But as long as Annan pushes for the continuation of his diplomatic efforts, "then that's an enormous benefit for the Russians to keep this diplomatic scaffolding in place."

It also allows Syria to keep cracking down on the opposition, he argued.

Tabler said al-Assad is "only partially and very selectively implementing" the six-point agreement that was supposed to end violence. "It's pretty clear ... that it isn't working on getting Assad to pull back forces from populated areas or stopping the violence," he said.

"So by implementing it this way it's just making it easier for Assad to hold on."

Tabler said he sees some analogies to earlier stages of the Bosnian conflict. But the United Nations sent a 2,000-member monitoring mission to Kosovo, while it is sending only 250 monitors to Syria, which is 10 times larger, he said.

Lopez, however, said the "monitoring presence is not futile. Rather, their documentation and related work, especially in making consistent demands of all fighting parties to end particular actions, can decrease the killing."

The United Nations and individual member states "must take every opportunity to push Assad to respond to every request, every demand, and every pressure to cooperate with each provision of the Annan plan," and there should be "a global call for International Criminal Court indictments of police and armed forces commanders," Lopez wrote in a column..

The presence of U.N. observers in Syria "might reawaken the Arab League and embolden them anew to narrow the military and political space available to Assad," and the leader might see his military forces dwindle further because more may desert or defect, he said.

Lopez also believes Russia may be losing some of its patience with al-Assad. "Chaos is a condition Assad believes will favor his claim that he is fighting terrorists and that only his survival provides hope for the future. But Russia fears such chaos and its regional implications, and this may make them open to different strategies with Syria."

But for now, the analysts don't see evidence that long-term peace efforts are moving forward.

The way the United Nations and world powers seem to be handling the situation at this point, Tabler said, indicates that "we're not trying to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people. What we're doing is trying to keep the Assad regime in power."


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