Sanctions on the horizon?
Saying that the six-point peace plan negotiated by Kofi Annan with the Syrian government represented "the last hope" for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, key members of the "Friends of Syria" coalition meeting in Paris on Thursday warned of further action by the UN Security Council unless President Assad lived up to the terms of the agreement.
In Damascus, representatives of the UN and the Syrian government signed a preliminary series of protocols that delineates the responsibilities of the Syrian government with respect to the advance team of UN monitors who arrived in the country on Tuesday. The agreement covers how the team of up to 30 observers will "monitor and support a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties." The UN Security Council will take up the issue of sending a much larger contingent of monitors to Syria -- up to 300 according to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon -- within days.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her most serious warning to the Assad regime to date, threatened to invoke sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter -- a move that would allow the Security Council to authorize force. More strong words came from French President Nicolas Sarkozy who compared the situation in Syria with Libya and urged the formation of "humanitarian corridors" to get food, medicine, and relief aid to more than a million Syrians in desperate need of supplies.
And Turkey is considering invoking Article 5 of the NATO Charter that calls an attack on one NATO state an attack on the entire alliance. Syrian military units have fired on refugee camps in Turkey in recent days, killing 4 Syrian civilians and wounding two Turkish nationals.
Despite all the maneuvering, the bottom line is that the Annan "peace plan" is for all intents and purposes, dead. The plan called for the Syrian government to withdraw their heavy weapons from cities and towns, begin releasing detainees, start a dialogue with the opposition, allow foreign reporters into the country, allow peaceful protests to occur, and allow humanitarian aid to reach those who need it.
The Assad regime has failed on each and every point to follow through on their responsibilities under the plan. While the first few days of the 10-day old cease fire saw fewer civilian casualties, the last 48 hours have seen horrific shelling in the twin flashpoint cities of Homs and Hama. Dozens of deaths have been reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London. No detainees have been released, the two sides have refused to sit down while the fighting continues, foreign reporters are still barred from entering the country, Assad's soldiers have fired on peaceful demonstrators, and humanitarian aid has been blocked or unable to reach the afflicted due to the fighting.
The question has been asked -- why persist in trying to resurrect an agreement honored in the breach by both sides? The answer is, according to Ban Ki Moon, that there is no other choice but to try and make the agreement work. The Secretary General still sees an "opportunity for progress" despite the near collapse of the cease fire plan, and called on the Security Council to support a larger monitoring mission saying that it “would greatly contribute to observing and upholding the commitment of the parties to a cessation of armed violence in all its forms.”
Syria has suggested that 250 monitors would be sufficient while the UN and Friends of Syria think that a number of 300 to 400 observers spread out over 10 cities and towns would be more effective. The attitude of Russia and China toward this increased presence of monitors in Syria is unknown. Both nations have formed a "Friends of Assad" grouping at the UN and have vetoed every SC resolution that sought to strengthen sanctions and bring Assad to heel. But the monitoring mission might be more to their liking. China has said that it is studying the idea of joining an observer force and Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier on Thursday, who agreed that the situation in Syria was no longer "a static state, but a deteriorating one."
The tone of the Friends of Syria meeting was decidedly grim. Sarkozy, in likening the situation in Syria to the Libyan situation before the fall of Gaddafi, accused Assad of lying. "He wants to wipe Homs off the map just like Gaddafi wanted to destroy Benghazi,” he said. “The solution," he added, "is the establishment of humanitarian corridors so that an opposition can exist in Syria.” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, in lobbying for the corridors, said that the peace plan was the "last hope" before civil war broke out -- a war that could spill over into neighboring countries and precipitate a regional conflict.
It is widely believed in Western military circles that any kind of a "humanitarian corridor" would require a sizable number of combat troops as well as a substantial number of aircraft to protect civilians, as well as guard the mission itself. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that “all options are on the table,” but warned against American military involvement during a congressional hearing on Thursday saying that Washington would need “a clear legal basis” and regional support to act. That will almost certainly not be forthcoming from the UN Security Council as Russia has been adamantly opposed to a repeat of the Libyan mission and would almost certainly veto any resolution that allowed foreign troops on Syrian soil.
The Free Syrian Army has been agitating for foreign intervention for months -- even without UN approval, but the civilian Syrian National Council has opposed intervention. The SNC is calling for foreign powers to arm the rebels, however, and if the peace plan falls through, more nations could potentially join some of the Gulf states who are already supplying small arms to the FSA.
What is spurring the Friends of Syria to threaten more drastic action is not just the continued shelling of cities by the Syrian army, but also the growing humanitarian crisis that now includes at least 230,000 refugees who have been forced to flee their homes, and another million Syrians who are desperately in need of food, medicine, and other aid. Part of the Annan cease fire plan called for a two hour respite in the shelling and fighting every day so that relief could be delivered. Assad's soldiers have ignored this part of the agreement and the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Thus, there have been calls by both France and Turkey for the humanitarian corridors to allow refugees safe passage to one of the border countries -- Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan -- and for supplies to alleviate the escalating suffering.
Panetta told the congressional hearing that the Pentagon was supplying $25 million in humanitarian aid and "non-lethal" assistance to the rebels. Arab League members have pledged more than $100 million in aid -- much of that to pay FSA fighters -- while Great Britain has pledged another 4 million pounds, bringing their contribution to over 10 million pounds.
It isn't that there isn't enough money to aid the Syrian people. The problem is President Assad refuses to allow the aid to reach those who most need it. With the economy in a state of near collapse, unemployment skyrocketing, high inflation, and a dearth of goods on the shelves, people are leaving their homes by the thousands and heading for refugee camps outside the country. This has put Turkey directly in Assad's line of fire as there have been several incidents in recent days of the Syrian army firing across the border hitting Syrian civilians on Turkish soil.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement warning that he might invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter that calls for the alliance to come to the aid of a member state if they are under attack. Invoking the article would allow NATO forces to take action against Syria without UN authorization. The chances of him doing so following a relatively insignificant border skirmish are low, but his words may alarm President Assad who believes himself invulnerable as a result of Russia and China's veto power at the UN.
Erdogan has been an early and vociferous supporter of the corridor idea and he may act unilaterally to set up a conduit to the rebels using Turkish troops so the opposition can be supplied while helping to alleviate some of the humanitarian problems near the border.
But Turkey alone cannot address the humanitarian crisis, nor can the Friends of Syria do much at this point to stop the slaughter. If -- and that's a big if -- President Assad allows hundreds of monitors into Syria, and if he begins to abide by the Annan peace plan, the UN will hold off on attempting to add additional sanctions on his regime. But realistically, no one expects Assad to comply beyond the empty promises he has already made. And once the fig leaf of a peace plan has been removed, the world community will find itself in exactly the same position it was prior to Kofi Annan's efforts, with the same limited options, the same intransigence from Russia and China, and the same ruthless actions by Assad and his criminal military directed against the innocent as well as the growing armed insurgency against his rule.
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