“Syrian troops killed 31 people today,” Reuters reports, “pursuing a fierce assault on President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents instead of silencing their big guns and leaving towns as promised under a fraying international peace plan.”
The regime’s violation of the pact threatens to alienate Russia, its principal source of international support.
“They have gone out on a limb for this government and they cannot be made to look like fools,” said Jeff Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation in New York, said in an interview. “This has now become a major test of Russia’s credibility as broker.”
News of the latest atrocities comes a day after Human Rights Watch reported that security forces and pro-government militias had carried out over 100 extrajudicial executions since late 2011, many over the past month, since Damascus agreed to UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
The only real surprise about the plan “is why it took until yesterday, the eve of its proposed ceasefire, for the world to declare it a failure,” notes Radwan Ziadeh, a spokesperson for the opposition Syrian National Council.
“Assad is a master of diversion….well-practiced at navigating the loopholes in international and domestic law, and acutely aware of the opportunities presented by repetitive non-binding statements,” he writes in The New Republic. “Unbacked by action, diplomacy has only ever provided cover and additional time for Assad to pursue his brutal goals.”
Whatever happened to R2P (Responsibility to Protect), asks exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid (below), expressing an exasperation over the international community’s inaction that is shared by many Syrian democracy advocates and their supporters.
“It seems that the international community had developed a case of collective amnesia as far as its legal and moral obligations are concerned,” he writes.
“Syria is Iran’s arm in the Middle East,” he notes. “Iran has used Syria as a staging ground to train and support militants who have crossed into Iraq to hurt our troops and to train for other terrorist activities.”
Aiding Syria’s democratic opposition would also boost US soft power in a region where it has been losing out.
“People around the world are looking for some kind of consistency in our foreign policy, and we’ve been criticized for not having that, not having anything close to consistency during the Arab Spring,” Zarate said.
Syria’s cross-border attacks on a refugee camp in Turkey raises the risks of regional contagion, analysts suggest.
“The international community will then have to look at a new dynamic in which the Turks are having to deal with cross-border firing, not just the influx of refugees that is already adding a lot of strain on Ankara,” said security analyst Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs with STRATFOR, the global strategy group.
But there are serious obstacles to international intervention, said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst with IHS Jane’s. “The country’s geo-strategic position and the confluence of complicating factors — a divided opposition, a strong central state, Western electoral cycles, fear of regional spill-over and what comes next — all militate against a Libya-style intervention.”
Some observers are also wary of the growing visibility of jihadist elements within opposition ranks.
“Jihadis will inevitably be part of the picture, as the regime cracks down on all opposition and pushes society to the brink, as people feel forsaken by the west, and as Gulf states step in to help,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. “But the question is how big a role will they carve out for themselves?”
“In an economy of conflict, will they have serious financial value added? Will they provide needed expertise? Will their narrative offer genuine legitimacy?”
Syria’s democratic forces are as wary of the jihadist groups as foreign observers, Harling says.
“The bulk of the opposition understands they stand to lose their legitimacy if they go down that road [of extremism] on any scale,” he says:
An activist from Homs who has taken refuge in Lebanon says the revolution has “an Islamic soul, but is not radical”. He insists a distinction must be made between people like him, who he refers to as “middle” Muslims, and what he calls “the radical types”. Everyone is aware, the activist adds, that these types are working for “themselves, not the revolution”.
A Free Syrian Army fighter in Lebanon who says he was part of a unit in Homs wants the muftis of Syria to declare it a land of jihad to attract foreign fighters. “When the injustice is over, everyone returns back to his country,” he says. Yet even he insists that he is against “fanaticism”, and has released a fundraising appeal on YouTube in which he explains that his full beard, a sign of adherence to the puritanical Salafi movement of Sunni Islam, does not mean he is against Christians.
“They [jihadis in Syria] are few and far between still,” says Amr al-Azm, a US-based opposition activist. “It’s not something people have necessarily yet turned to. But as people become more and more desperate, they will turn to desperate measures.”
While the Baathist regime has demonstrated considerable resilience and the opposition several setbacks, one leading analyst is still betting on the latter to triumph.
“Syria is in the midst of a broad based revolution and Assad will not be able to destroy it,” says SyriaComment’s Joshua Landis. “The revolutionary forces have suffered a grave defeat in facing the full force of the Assad army, but I also suspect that they will regroup and devise new tactics.”
Assad’s regime is “already setting up its rationale for noncompliance” with any future peace plan, says Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:
That is why, if there is any hope of turning the tide, and of capitalizing on an unprecedented level of international unity and action on Syria, the U.N. must not only endorse a deadline for a ceasefire, as it has already done—it must craft contingency plans in the event that Assad continues to defy the will of the rest of the world. Otherwise, it’s not only the lives of Syrians and the region’s fragile stability that are at risk, but the future credibility of the international community.