Despite the UN’s call for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of government troops and heavy weaponry from trouble spots, Syrian troops continue operations against dissident Syrians. The UN peace plan brokered by joint UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan -- which includes calls for Syrian political reform, a UN supervised cessation of violence, provision of humanitarian assistance, release of prisoners, free movement of the press and the right to peaceful demonstrations -- has not achieved effective results.
Against a backdrop of repressive measures against opposition groups and innocent citizens of Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, there has been growing pressure on the regime from Western powers, which have now begun expelling Syrian diplomats. Declaring the Syrian government responsible for the slaughter of more than 100 people -- mostly women and children -- in the town of Houla, the US Department of State ordered Syria’s top diplomat to leave within 72 hours. This action was followed by Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey and several other countries.
The expulsion of top diplomats came as Annan tried to salvage the peace plan, pleading with Assad to honor the UN-brokered ceasefire. The Assad regime responded by declaring foreign diplomats in Syria, numbering more than a dozen, persona non grata, defying the Western powers. The Assad regime plays a tit for tat game.
In spite of recent statements from the office of Annan to the effect that the UN-brokered peace plan is on track, and that a crisis that has lasted more than a year is not going to be resolved in the space of a day or a week, a further 33 Syrians are reported to have been killed in renewed violence across the country, and heavy weaponry has been seen in populated areas. Troops reportedly opened fire on demonstrators outside a mosque in the town of Jubar, near Damascus, rounding up hundreds of students from Aleppo. Then there are the stabbing deaths of several suspected opposition figures. UN peace-keeping chief Herve Ladsous said Syrian troops had failed to withdraw their heavy weapons from cities and continued to shell civilian areas.
In retaliation, rebels killed more than a dozen Syrian troops in an ambush in Aleppo in the second week of May.
The UN has authorized a 300-strong team of monitors to enter the country, but so far only 30 are in place. The most recent massacre of 116 civilians, including 22 children, in the village of Houla, north of Homs, on May 25 has caused the Security Council serious concerns. Although the Assad regime has conveniently passed the buck to al-Qaeda groups in Syria, opposition groups have blamed the government for the violence and called on the UN to start a dialogue for peace and stability. For opposition groups, the UN sponsored peace plan has not yielded any positive results.
Following the Houla massacre, the 15-member UN Security Council released a statement unanimously condemning the killings. According to a report published in the Washington Post on May 28, conflicting reports emanate from the massacre. Villagers stated that the Syrian army began shelling rebel forces following the killing of two Syrian army officers. Eyewitnesses say shabiha, pro-government Alawite militias, from a nearby village attacked the homes of Sunni people and ruthlessly slaughtered them. If there is any iota of truth to the story, it seems the possibility of civil war between the minority Alawite Shia and majority Sunni communities in Syria is a live one.
Security Council response
The statement of the UN Security Council released on May 27 speaks of the failure of the UN monitoring mission to halt violence in Syria and open political dialogue with opposition groups.
It is also important to note that it is the first time both Russia and China have sided with the majority in the Security Council condemning attacks. However, a joint statement issued on June 6, at the conclusion of a state visit to China by newly elected President Vladimir Putin, makes clear that the nations are opposed to regime change or military intervention in Syria. Both Russia and China support the Annan plan to resolve the crisis. The alignment between Moscow and Beijing has been further strengthened since Putin came to the presidency.
The visit of British Foreign Secretary William Hague to Moscow to have tête-à-tête with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on May 28, 2012 -- in which Hague pushed for pressure to be exerted on Assad to step down and accept responsibility for the massacres in Syria -- had no positive impact. Moscow holds the view that comprehensive political reform should be carried out by the Assad regime, but that violence perpetrated by armed opposition groups in the country must also be stopped. Moscow will not agree to put pressure on the Assad regime unless its interests in Syria, both strategic and economic, are guaranteed to be protected.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Obama administration for drastic action against the Syrian regime, such as that taken against Libya. Many members of the US Republican Party, including Senator John McCain and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, are very critical of President Obama for his passive role in the crisis. Obama has in fact urged both Russia and China to persuade Assad to step down from the presidency and hand power to a transitional government, but with no result so far. However, US Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey delivered a warning to Syria, saying military intervention could not be ruled out if atrocities continued. The situation in Syria should not be compared with that of Libya. No land is occupied by an opposition group in Syria, as was the case with Benghazi in Libya. Apart from the Shia minority, Assad has the support of the minority Christian community and certain factions of the Sunni population.
Syria’s neighbor Lebanon will remain non-committal against the Assad regime. Moreover, the Syrian army is powerful in the region, equipped with long-range missiles, and is dominated by the Alawite Shia minority. The secretary-general of NATO has also made it clear that NATO would not become involved in the Syrian crisis. Furthermore, the Syrian opposition National Council is suffering from internal conflicts.
Many exiled leadership figures have no contacts or influence in Syria as they have lived abroad for many years. Now Abdul Baset Sieda, a Kurdish activist, has become chairman of the National Council, following the resignation of Paris-based academician Burhan Ghalious. This picture does not bode at all well for Syria’s opposition, and without the support of Moscow and Beijing there can be no resolution of the crisis. The Arab Spring remains held up in Syria.
*Mohammad Amjad Hossain, a retired diplomat from Bangladesh, writes from Virginia in the US