Syria Crisis Reaches "Tipping Point", Says UN Envoy
The crisis in Syria has reached a "tipping point", UN envoy Kofi Annan told reporters on 29 May.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Annan made his remarks in Damascus after a meeting with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad during which he again demanded the Syrian government implement his peace plan in full.
Annan's comments, which were tinged with a hint of desperation, came four days after the Houla massacre and on the day that Western states took further steps to isolate Syria by expelling its leading diplomats.
Annan probably knows that his plan is teetering on the brink of collapse, but with no other viable initiative on the table and the alternative a collapse into worse violence, he will persist, hoping for an unblocking of the international diplomatic stalemate or a major change in the Syrian domestic balance of power.
"We are at a tipping point. The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today," Annan told a press conference in Damascus after his meeting with Assad. He went on in a passage that it was hard not to read as tinged with a hint of desperation: "I appealed to him for bold steps now—not tomorrow, now—to create momentum for the implementation of the plan."
Annan also expressed his concern and that of the international community about the events in Houla on 25 May when 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, were massacred, allegedly by pro-government Shabiha irregular militiamen. A UN investigation into the killings has concluded that many of the victims were killed at close quarters by gunshots or by having their throats slit. The Syrian government condemned the massacre as a "terrorist" act aimed at derailing the peace plan, but few impartial observers, including Syria's erstwhile backer Russia, share this opinion, although Moscow, seemingly ignoring the fact that it has already done so, has called for an impartial UN investigation into the massacre.
Residents bury the victims of the Houla massacre, 26 May, 2012.
Such calls from Russia, coupled with comments from its foreign ministry on 30 May that "any new measures [from the Security Council] on the situation would be premature" will only extend the debate about where UN policy in Syria is heading. It will also increase criticism of the Russian (and by extension Chinese) attitude towards Syria and highlight anew the issue of how bad does it have to get before its policy changes. In this respect, Moscow's suggestion that some countries are using the Houla massacre as an excuse to promote military intervention are unlikely to be well-received in the West.
Western states have already made up their minds in this respect but remain constrained by a combination of Russian and Chinese opposition and the geo-strategic realities of sanctioning either direct or indirect military action against Damascus. In this respect, the collective 29 May decision by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and Switzerland to expel the Syrian ambassadors in their countries—joined by Japan and Turkey on 30 May—should come as little surprise. But the angry reaction to the Houla massacre has again only highlighted the current paucity of Western options and their continued lack of faith in the Syrian opposition and its ability to represent a viable and coherent alternative to the Assad regime.
All of which means that the dynamics of the crisis will only probably alter if and when the balance of power alters within Syria. Most Syrians are probably desperate that the Annan plan succeeds, but with the ceasefire existing in name only, this remains something of a forlorn hope. The events in Houla may yet change this. If they do, and Syrians begin to take to the streets in large numbers in the way that the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, and Yemenis have before them, then this may yet back up Annan's assertion that a tipping point has been reached—although not in the way he probably envisaged.
The problem remains thought that there is precious little evidence that this is occurring. Anecdotal reporting from the BBC on 29 May suggested that shopkeepers in Damascus have gone on strike and that large demonstrations in the capital since 25 May have been violently broken up by the security forces. If this is the first sign of a change in position by the merchants and middle class—who have so far remained apathetic, if not loyal, to the regime—then this could be problematic for Assad. The fact that this influential section of society has not yet sided with the opposition has been the major reason why Assad has been able to claim popular support for his own "reform process". If the middle classes, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, decide to desert him, then this could mark the beginning of the end. Until this happens though, Assad will continue to feel he has some form of domestic mandate.
The major problem for the opposition and those Syrians—probably a majority—tacitly opposed to Assad is that the international stalemate is at least partly responsible for allowing this domestic deadlock to be perpetuated. The international community may lack leverage over Damascus, but the failure of the UN to speak with one voice will continue to restrict policy options. Moreover, even if Russia and China were to embrace sanctions against Syria, they would in all likelihood be piecemeal and fail to address the root causes of the crisis: the Syrian government's loss of legitimacy. Indeed, this outcome would be little different than if, as seems probable, current policies are continued.
Outlook and Implications
The UN will persist with its plan, the West, Russia and China will support it rhetorically for lack of an alternative, meanwhile, the violence will go on as events on the ground continue to dictate a different agenda to that being played out at the diplomatic level. Therefore, the tragedy appears to be that as much as the Annan plan is designed to prevent conflict, it is actually and somewhat perversely, playing its own part in ensuring that the killing goes on.
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