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Cautious hope for Syria

Few diplomatic initiatives have faced more skepticism than Kofi Annan's plan for Syria, and for good reason. Annan's six point plan may have been the only game in town, but its limited mandate reflected by necessity the demands of a divided Security Council and seemed to many far too accommodating to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad certainly gave little reason to believe its promises, as his forces spent the days leading up to the ceasefire date unleashing ever escalating violence. Syrian opposition and activist views ranged from skeptical to hostile, while those who loudly yearn for a Western military intervention dismissed it as an irritating obstacle to action.

But on Thursday, the ceasefire took effect. Violence did not end, but it dramatically dropped.  That set the stage for today's critical test: would peaceful protestors return to the streets after the brutal onslaught of the last couple of weeks? And how would regime forces respond if they did? Up until now, the answers offer the first, frail glimmers of hope for Syria in a long, long time. I've been watching dozens of videos of Syrians pouring out into the streets today to demonstrate across the country. And while there have again been scattered reports of attacks and efforts to block demonstrations in some cities, there has not been a systematic military response. Today's exhilerating outpouring of popular, peaceful protest does not guarantee anything.  But it does prove that Assad's effort to kill his way to victory has failed.

The wave of peaceful protests today offers a tantalizing window into the possibility, however slim, that Annan's plan could halt Syria's seemingly relentless slide to civil war. Assad's failure to break the spirit of opposition despite his brutal onslaught over the last couple of weeks is genuinely significant. The wave of protest and the much-strengthened international consensus showed that Assad's brutal offensive, and dangerous escalation along the Turkish border, failed to destroy the opposition and helped to unite the international community. The willingness of Syrians to go into the streets today, and for the opposition to generally adhere to peaceful protest for the day, is a vital sign that such a political strategy remains possible and that a mobilized non-violent opposition might take advantage of a ceasefire to recapture political momentum.

Given his lost legitimacy and the economic collapse, I don't believe that Assad can survive at this point without using force. He seems to have believed that he could crush the opposition before his international window closed, but he did not. If Syrians continue to take to the streets and the regime is restrained by international pressure from responding violently, a snowball could begin to roll, especially if those still sitting on the fence or backing the regime out of fear come to see that opposition as peaceful and inclusive rather than as a potentially life-threatening armed force. It would be remarkable to see a non-violent, mass protest movement emerge from the wreckage of civil war like a Phoenix. It may in fact be too much to expect, given the evolution of the status and role of the armed groups within the opposition and the horrors which the regime has inflicted upon the population. But it's something to encourage and to protect. 

It's obviously only a beginning, and one which could be reversed over the weekend. Assad has not even come close to complying with the terms of the Annan plan, which includes far more than a ceasefire. But it's notable that there is now a robust and largely unified international consensus demanding that he comply with the plan -- even from Russia and China, which have a stake in a plan they helped craft. The plan, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton noted, is not a menu of options from which to choose.  And more demands should be forthcoming. The Security Council is reportedly close to approving a plan for a small observer mission to enter Syria, which would at least initially be a symbolic step to capitalize on the momentum. I suspect that the recent rumblings from Annan about humanitarian corridors, from Turkey about safe zones and invoking NATO Article, and from the Security Council resolution drafters about considering "other means" if the ceasefire fails are meant primarily to pressure Assad to stick to the plan. And I'm very pleased by the growing talk of pushing for an ICC referral at the Security Council should the Annan plan fail, and by the agreement at the recent Friends of Syria conference to create a "Syria Accountability Clearing House" to prepare the ground for future international or transitional justice regardless of the political outcome. 

Nobody believes that this is going to be easy or fast or fully satisfying, least of all Annan.  Everything could easily go wrong if and when regime forces launch a major attack on protestors, or if there's an opposition attack against those forces. I don't believe that Assad will intentionally negotiate his own downfall, or trust his intentions for a minute.  The contours of a political transition haven't even begun to be discussed publicly. Syrian opposition activists are highlighting ongoing violations and warning furiously that Assad should not be trusted. And a lot of external supporters of the Syrian opposition don't want a political process to succeed since it would block the path towards the military intervention they advocate, and are already agitating to declare the Annan plan dead.

But that would be a mistake at this point. The fetish for military intervention among so many in the Syria policy debate has been counter-productive. The Obama administration and most of the key governments involved in the Syria crisis clearly believe that military intervention and arming the opposition are bad ideas -- not viable solutions which they are avoiding for political reasons, but potential fiascos which they are avoiding out of prudence. I expect that the U.S. and the United Nations will try to keep this process alive while pushing Assad and the opposition for self-restraint and for a political roadmap. They should, even through the likely setbacks, stumbles, and reversals to come. This may be the last chance to avoid a catastrophic descent into years of protracted insurgency and proxy warfare. I hope it survives the weekend and takes root, even if most everyone recognizes that it likely will not.   

YouTube Screen Capture, April 13, 2012

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