The April 10 deadline for Syrian forces to withdraw from major cities set by Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy for Syria, appears to have come and gone with little change on the ground. Thursday's deadline for a complete ceasefire looks set to pass as well. For now, Annan rightly insists the plan is still on the table. But Syria's last best chance for a diplomatic solution is dying.
If Annan's plan is likely dead, the coroner won't pronounce it for a few more days. Deadlines like these are sometimes rescued in diplomatic overtime. Russian prestige is now on the line, and we may see a last-ditch effort from Moscow to get Assad to comply. The upcoming G8 foreign ministers' meeting in Washington on April 12, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will confront an irate Hillary Clinton, might provide an opportunity to break the deadlock between the United States and Russia.
There's precedent for this: When the U.N. Security Council was stalemated in 1999 over Kosovo, it was a G8 meeting that provided the diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Russia. There will be ferocious diplomacy to that end in the next few days, as well as diplomacy aimed at seeing whether Beijing can be persuaded to play ball -- or at least not block Security Council action -- leaving Moscow more isolated. We could still see the Security Council agreeing to a new resolution, calling on President Bashar al-Assad to implement Annan's plan and agreeing to deploy a monitoring force. Still, those hoping for a diplomatic solution to this mess shouldn't fool themselves -- the odds are low.
But the odds were always low. Several days ago, commentators were busily rehearsing the line that Annan was naive to be "shocked" that Assad broke his promises. Casablanca-style "shocked, shocked" is more like it: Annan is nobody's fool. He has long experience with Assad, and knew full well the odds lay against his following through on any diplomatic solution. The former U.N. secretary-general was not counting on Assad's good will, but on producing a plan that could unify the Security Council, shifting Assad's international calculus. It still might. It probably won't.
Annan and current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were right to try. Diplomacy sometimes succeeds in unlikely circumstances, and could have forestalled the inevitable deterioration that will now follow. And if diplomacy irrevocably fails in the next few days, then no one can credibly argue that all other options were not exhausted before more forceful measures are used.
What might those measures be?
There will be new calls for the use of force to achieve regime change. The strong moral pros and substantial operational cons of that option have been fully debated in this magazine and elsewhere. At this stage, there is no sign that the United States, NATO, Turkey, or anyone else is contemplating a full-blown intervention. Indeed, the White House has reportedly signaled to the Syrian opposition recently that it is not prepared to escalate its conflict with the Assad regime.
A more likely scenario was spelled out by Foreign Policy's own James Traub. His argument is that the least bad option may be one of arming the rebels, supporting them politically if they accept certain basic standards of conduct, and engaging in a slow, drawn-out process of bleeding the regime -- what he calls a "neo-mujahideen" strategy. That phrase deliberately invokes the risks as well as potential gains of such an approach, and there should be no doubting that it carries the danger of major escalation and sectarian clashes.