Annan's Mission Impossible

Why is everyone pretending that the U.N. plan in Syria has a prayer of succeeding?

The world is learning hard lessons in Syria. The United States has already admitted that the mission of U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan is likely to fail, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that Washington is preparing to take other measures against Bashar al-Assad's regime. She pointed out what is clear to all: U.N. observers cannot operate effectively while Assad refuses to abide by a ceasefire.

Let's be clear about why Annan's mission has been unsuccessful. It is not failing because the U.N. observers have been slow to deploy, or even because Assad has yet to implement a single point from Annan's six-point plan. The fundamental reason for Annan's failure is more basic than that: His plan is flawed because it was formulated on the misguided belief that the Assad regime will ever stop using violence against domestic protesters and negotiate with them in good faith.

It is high time to debunk once and for all the popular myths about the Syrian regime. People have believed for too long -- whether out of naïveté or cynicism -- that Assad has been willing to initiate political reforms and will do so in due time. He has not and will not. Nor will the regime stop its violence. Doing so would hasten its demise, as Syrians took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest freely and assume control of large parts of the country.

And yet, the world still clings to the hope that the Annan plan will somehow bring an end to the violence. It seems that we have lost our moral compass, unrealistically hoping that Annan will succeed -- and largely doing so because we are too timid to contemplate seriously other options to assist the Syrian people.

Assad's behavior during the 14-month long uprising shows that he has never seriously considered a "fundamental change of course," as Annan has demanded. Instead, Assad has sought to solve his problems through intimidation and brute force. The estimated death toll of more than 11,000 Syrians since the beginning of the uprising serves as a bloody testament to that fact.

Annan's plan relies on the hope that Assad will negotiate in good faith, perhaps under pressure from his Russian backers. He will not, and the regime will not accept any credible opposition to its rule -- regardless of Moscow's preferences. The regime's war crimes -- including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, the forced displacement of civilians from cities, and the sanctioning of a mass campaign of rape against women by security forces, including paramilitary shabiha brigades -- speak for themselves. While the international community continues to focus on Annan's efforts, it is unbelievable that Assad and his regime are still not seen as international pariahs. The Syrian government has lied to the international community at every turn. When will the world realize that any attempt to negotiate with Assad is utterly futile?

The Assad regime has so far successfully employed a strategy of buying time, agreeing to the Annan plan while doing everything it can to undermine it. Meanwhile, the international community has played into Assad's hands by buying into the fanciful logic that the introduction of unarmed U.N. observers will establish calm inside Syria and moderate the regime's behavior. Indeed, it was only a few short weeks ago that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé declared that the Annan mission was "our last chance to avoid civil war." In a rare moment of clarity, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, admitted that not even 1,000 observers could end the bloodshed.

The only surprise here is that the U.N. Secretariat, which had grown increasingly risk-averse following the al Qaeda bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 that killed 22 of my former U.N. colleagues, has now embarked on one of its most dangerous missions since then. Its brave blue berets have been thrust into a situation where they are simultaneously in grave danger and do not have the capability of fulfilling their mandate. This latest mission shows that the United Nations has not learned the lessons of its failures in Bosnia in the 1990s, when the initial peacekeeping mission did not have sufficient capabilities to stop the slaughter in Srebrenica.

Not even the Syrian regime's international protectors can convince it to abide by the terms of the Annan plan. Russia, and to a lesser degree China, have indeed leaned heavily on Assad in this regard, and there are signs from senior diplomats and those close to the foreign policy communities in both countries that Moscow and Beijing are getting fed up with Assad, and even consider his eventual demise to be inevitable. But these frustrations have amounted to naught. Neither country has convinced Assad to implement the Annan plan, and they have not placed greater pressure on him to remove his heavy armor from Syria's main cities. Instead, the Syrian army has resorted to placing sheets over some of its tanks in a transparent ploy to trick the world that it is abiding by the terms of the ceasefire.

Perhaps Russia and China, like the Syrian regime itself, know that Assad would quickly lose control of large parts of his country if he did so. Ironically, Moscow's fears -- of losing its closest strategic ally in the region, of what comes next, and of being frozen out of a new Syria, as was the case in Iraq and more recently in Libya -- are taking it further from its strategic objectives. Assad's game of buying time is losing Moscow valuable friends in the region. Working toward a post-Assad Syria remains the only way to strengthen these fragile ties.

Even as Syria's death toll has mounted and the Annan plan increasingly looks like a lost cause, decisive international action has been hard to come by. For all the anti-Assad rhetoric coming from Ankara, Turkey has been reluctant to act without U.S. and NATO backing to establish the much-hyped "safe zones" inside Syria. Ankara has its own problems to deal with: As Georgetown University professor Birol Baskan explains, Turkish reluctance is due largely to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's fraught ties with his nation's secularist military establishment, as well other domestic vulnerabilities. And despite all the talk of arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Gulf states -- Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular -- have hesitated, too.

The United States also has little appetite for a more aggressive role in Syria. It is clear that President Barack Obama is running for re-election on the narrative that America's wars in the greater Middle East are coming to an end. "As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America," he declared during a speech last week in Afghanistan. Washington has accordingly been willfully slow to take advantage of the strategic opportunity presented by regime change in Syria. Instead of pressing its advantage and further isolating the regime's backers -- in particular, Iran -- the United States has taken the seemingly safer course of increasing the economic pressure on Assad's regime.

In the absence of clear and determined U.S. leadership, trying to make the doomed Annan plan work will take the international community through the summer and the U.S. presidential election, making any decisive international action unlikely until the middle of next year at the earliest. This will be fatal for the future of Syria, leading to more bloodshed, more radicalization on both sides, and a heightened risk of ethnic and sectarian conflict.

The consequences for international security will be dire. Syria's descent into chaos is increasingly dividing the country and may even threaten its future as a unified nation-state. Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which is increasingly flexing its political and economic muscles, has demonstrated that borders cannot be taken for granted in this highly volatile region. Syria's crisis may do for the Levant what the Iraq war did for Mesopotamia, unraveling the post-World War I political fault lines of the Middle East. Worse, continued conflict in Syria will likely spill beyond its borders and could re-ignite smoldering sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, threatening the stability of the entire region.

With the stakes so high, the international community cannot afford to pin its hopes on the Annan plan. Instead, it should accept the hard lessons of the past 14 months and redirect its efforts toward changing the balance of power on the ground.

Those countries with a stake in Syria's future should do their utmost to help Syrians organize a broad-based national movement that unites people on the basis of opposition to the regime and commitment to a democratic Syria. This will require undoing the Assads' 42-year old "divide and rule" strategy, bringing together key groups of Syrian society such as minorities and tribes. These groups now have a crucial role to play to hasten the regime's demise and place Syria on a path to a democratic future.

There are indications that such a strategy would meet with success. Over the past few months, I have conducted extensive roundtable discussions with many Syrian constituencies -- such as tribal figures, members of established families, religious leaders, and representatives of the Kurdish community -- whose interests are often poorly understood by the outside world. From these conversations, I have found that there is a growing desire among tribal groups from the strategically important eastern and northern areas of Syria to resist Assad, including through military means, and to unite with other groups, particularly the Kurds. In turn, some Kurdish leaders have indicated their willingness, in ongoing private conversations with the tribes, to engage with these groups. Although the Kurds are divided in their stance toward the revolution, all want their culture and rights recognized in a post-Assad Syria. Other communities, such as the Christians and Druze, have largely stayed on the sidelines in the absence of a Syrian national project in which they have confidence.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), an anti-Assad opposition body that operates largely outside the country, has assumed international importance as "a legitimate representative of the Syrian people," in the words of the "Friends of the Syrian People" group. However, my conversations with tribal and minority figures clearly reveal that they have little confidence in the SNC. Many point to the fact that it has no presence on the ground, and most are suspicious of the influence that the Muslim Brotherhood and its perceived patron, Turkey, wield within the organization.

These groups express greater support for the fragmented FSA, even if it has struggled to establish a clear command-and-control structure inside Syria from its Turkish base. Tribal figures have stated that they want the international community to support the FSA by providing expert assistance and help with communications and specific armaments. They worry that the uncoordinated, steady trickle of arms through private sources and the determined efforts of jihadists to enter Syria through Iraq will lead only to further chaos. They also point out that many FSA leaders and ordinary soldiers are "sons of the tribes," and that more would join its ranks if the FSA had greater external support. Notably, there is also increasing talk of a military alliance between the FSA -- in collaboration with the SNC -- and the tribes and Kurds.

The world should abandon the fiction that the Assad regime can be persuaded to reach a political accommodation with its adversaries. Rather, it is time for a renewed effort to forge a genuine united front, including all groups in Syria's social fabric, dedicated to Assad's downfall and the establishment of a pluralistic, democratic state in the aftermath. This effort needs stronger international backing today -- opposition leaders inside and outside the country do not have the resources to unite their ranks alone. If an endeavor to create a genuine grand opposition coalition were to succeed, the Assad regime would face a greater political and military challenge than ever before, stretching its forces to a breaking point. With Annan's peace plan in tatters, that's a goal the international community should embrace.



Brothers in Arms

Syrian dissidents are getting out of Damascus, but they can't escape their memories of torture.

CAIRO — "Tareq," a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, looks out a cafe window onto Tahrir Square, where an effigy of Hosni Mubarak limply hangs from a nearby lamppost. "They kept beating me on the head, and I was bleeding," he says, breathing shallowly. "I was screaming, 'For the sake of God!' But they would only respond, 'Where is your God now? Let him come and save you.' I was about to faint and could almost see light. I kept saying the shahada and telling God, 'This is for you and for the sake of freedom.'"

Tareq's story is one of many among the growing community of Syrian exiles in Cairo. As the number of refugees fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's 14-month crackdown has mounted, a collective memory has formed in the Egyptian capital: For many young Syrians, the horrors of war, once spoken of in hushed tones by their elders, have now come alive. From the relative safety of the spiritual heart of the Arab Spring, Syrian activists are organizing, protesting, and praying from afar for the demise of Assad's regime in Damascus.

But the comforts of Cairo -- it's safer for Syrian activists than Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey's border areas and cheaper than Istanbul -- are often not enough to drown out the physical and emotional trauma many refugees have endured. Tareq, who declined to give his real name for fear of retribution against his family in Syria, says he is plagued by memories of the electrical instruments used to torture him, soldiers' boots that crushed his face as he lay on the prison-cell floor where he was kept, handcuffs that restrained him as the guards threatened to rape his mother, and screams from detainees as soldiers used pocket lighters to burn the flesh from their groins.

Now, 400 miles away in Cairo, Tareq has attempted to rebuild his shattered life by remaining an energetic member of the activist community, organizing public events, plays, art activities, and short films to raise money and awareness for those back home.

Egypt, of course, is itself still far from a model of stability -- the upcoming presidential election promises to provoke a confrontation between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), newly resurgent Islamists, and embattled liberals -- and the dysfunction has left Syrian activists in a sort of political limbo. But Rami Jarrah, a well-known voice of the Syrian revolution who now heads a vast activist network from an office in Cairo, thinks Egypt's opportunities outweigh the inevitable disadvantages of a country in transition.

"In general, Syrian activists are free to move here," Jarrah says. "In Lebanon, you can't open an office like this. You have Hezbollah … It makes it impossible to really be active, to really surface and talk about the Syrian situation. In Egypt, it's far away, but close to what's happening. There's a lot of moral support."

Jarrah's own memories of torture in Syria, after being apprehended in March 2011 while covering one of the early anti-government protests in Damascus, motivate him to work into the early-morning hours in his Cairo office. He said he was imprisoned for three days in central Damascus, where he was denied food, water, and sleep, and would wake up covered in bleach after falling unconscious between beatings and suffocation at the hands of Assad's security forces.

Jarrah still tweets under his former alias, Alexander Page -- a daily reminder of the repression that initially drove him, his wife, and his child from Syria last October. Although he has made a new life for himself as an activist in Cairo, Alexander Page's biography still lists his location as "limbo."

"I spent the last seven years [in Syria] practically hating every second of it because of the fact that I felt Syrians didn't understand what freedom was," says Jarrah, who was born in Cyprus and raised in London, and who returned in 2004 to Syria, where he found work as an import-export consultant. "I [want] to spend another seven years in a democratic Syria."

Of course, Assad loyalists have found it just as easy to exploit Egypt's relatively open political space as opponents of the Syrian regime have. The Syrian mukhabarat, or secret police, regularly intimidate Syrians involved in anti-Assad activity in Cairo, activists say. After fleeing to Cairo, Jarrah says, he would receive ominous phone calls from an unknown number every day at 6 a.m. A voice on the line would recite the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran, which is often said after someone dies.

But now, Jarrah says, the work of Syrian intelligence officers in Egypt is waning -- activists have not been harassed with the frequency that they were in the past. He attributes this to the raging conflict inside the country, which may be preoccupying the regime's attention. Nevertheless, Jarrah explains, Syrian intelligence officers still want activists to be aware of their presence in Cairo.

What's more, he thinks Syrians in Cairo who appear to be working for the regime may not necessarily be pro-Assad at all. In a bitter twist of irony, he says, some Syrian asylum-seekers who reach Cairo still find themselves prisoners of Assad's tyranny and are forced to feed information to Syrian intelligence to free family members and friends still in detention back home.

But for some Syrians, solidarity with Egyptian activists partly makes up for Cairo's pitfalls. "We see [Syrians] as people looking for their freedom," says Muhammad Ramadan, a freelance filmmaker and Egyptian revolutionary. "We support them and welcome their presence and protests in Cairo."

Ramadan could be found in Tahrir Square last year, filming the unfolding Egyptian revolution. Now he documents anti-Assad protests in Cairo -- his way of boosting a cause that many Egyptian and Syrian activists believe has yet to generate any significant response from the international community. "I support Syria because I'm Egyptian," he says. "It's important to have solid revolutionary governments around us [to lead] our Arab world forward."

Support from the Egyptian government, however, is more ambiguous. "I feel safe [in Egypt], but I don't feel safe in the office," Jarrah says. Egypt's laws regarding foreign funding make it almost impossible for him to officially register his organization, the Activists News Association, which supports citizen journalism and coordinates Syrian activism. "It's only a matter of time before they shut us down," he predicts. "But by that time, we'll be credible enough to cause public reaction."

Even for Syrians not as prominent as Jarrah, Egypt's safety only stretches so far. "Bassam," a former Syrian student in Cairo, was part of the group that stormed the Syrian Embassy in Cairo in January. Inside the building, he says, the demonstrators found reports listing the names of Syrians who have spoken out against the Assad regime in Egypt. His name was among them. The revelation did not deter Bassam. Since our conversation, he has used what would have been his tuition money to return to Syria to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), according to his friends in Cairo. (Although Syrian government officials in Cairo connected his name to anti-Assad activity, his identity has been withheld because they do not know of his plans to fight with the FSA.)

According to Bassam, pro-regime Syrian students joined the January protests to gather the faces and names of demonstrators to hand over to Syrian Embassy officials. "They blackmail us," Bassam explains. "If you want your name off the list, you have to join pro-regime forces. We're not allowed to go back to our homes [in Syria]." He says the Egyptian government "knows this is going on -- they give [the Syrian intelligence] the freedom."

Some lower-level Egyptian officials, however, have found ways to tip the scales in favor of the anti-Assad protesters. In April 2011, following a particularly bloody crackdown by the Assad regime, activists organized a demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy in Cairo. As Syrians mourned outside, embassy officials blasted pro-regime music from within. According to Bassam, an Egyptian police officer demanded that the officials shut off the music, and when they didn't comply, he cut off their electricity. "The policeman sympathized with us," Bassam says.

The officer's action prompted a new chant from the crowd: "Egypt and Syria, hand in hand" -- a modification of the old Egyptian revolutionary chant that the people and the army were "one hand."

Still, Cairo's comforts cannot distract Syrian refugees from the horrors that their compatriots are suffering back in Syria. Halfway through our interview, Bassam was informed by text message of a recent attack near his home, in the southern city of Deraa. Putting his phone on speaker, he tried calling his sister, the dial tone droning on until it cut out completely. "There is no connection," he said, staring at the screen.

Bassam's stay in Cairo was only temporary. For him -- like so many Syrians seeking refuge -- Cairo is a city of waiting and counting as the death toll ticks higher several hundred miles away. Bassam's only way back into his home country was to illegally cross Syria's border with Jordan. He wasn't naive about the risks. Several months ago, he attempted the journey from Turkey, with a group of Syrians who hoped to join the FSA. But upon stepping on Syrian soil, the group was ambushed by Syrian soldiers, and only half survived, he says. His most recent trip, however, has been more successful.

Not all Syrian activists in Egypt make their mark on Cairo's streets. One activist, a Syrian woman known to most only as "Damascus Rebel," was living in Cairo before the Arab Spring and now is tirelessly committed to informing the world about the situation in Syria. She tweets as @Mou2amara -- it means "conspiracy" in Arabic -- a name she chose during the Egyptian revolution, when officials claimed protesters were being bribed with $10 and a meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Everyone was talking about the external conspiracies against Egypt," she told me. "Little did I know it was going to be the excuse for every dictator during the revolutions."

Damascus Rebel works with a large network of activists -- around 100 directly and hundreds more through other organizations. Some have recently arrived in Cairo, and others remain undercover in Syria. Every day she circulates information and videos through her blog and Twitter feed, working to inform other activists and journalists about events in Syria.

For Damascus Rebel, Egypt is purely an electronic base. She rarely goes to protests, for fear of being outed by Syrian mukhabarat. Her identity remains a mystery to most, and even with Egypt's fairly liberal tolerance for Syrian activism, she fears her cover will be compromised, endangering her family both inside and outside Syria. "I don't trust meeting anyone," she admits. Most of her interactions with other activists are over Skype and Twitter, and though they often know each other's daily schedules and intimate details about their personal lives, real names are rarely used.

Damascus Rebel found her activist voice during the initial rumblings of the Egyptian revolution. But now the uncertainties of post-revolution Egypt create their own set of barriers for Syrian activists. "If the Egyptian government would take a solid stand, then Syrians would know how to organize properly," she says. "If there was a government in place, then [we] could work with NGOs. If paperwork was being done, [we] could apply for a license to do something."

Some days, she feels helpless. Working from afar, there is only so much an activist can do. "We are sick and tired of sending out videos of mangled children. At what point are we going to be seen as human beings?" she asks. "We [hear] people screaming over Skype."

For all Egypt's flaws, it is the much-needed sense of solidarity Syrians find in the country that brings them back to Cairo.

"When I stand in Tahrir Square, I am proud," Tareq says. "I want to thank the Egyptian people for supporting Syrians." He recalls a phrase he saw the other day, written on a wall in Tahrir: "Down with the SCAF and down with Bashar al-Assad." They were written "next to each other in the same line," he says. "They come together."

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