Despite the tentative and fragile ceasefire that appears to have now taken hold in Syria, skepticism and outright vitriol regarding the mission of United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan remains. This frustration is understandable as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has until now shown no signs of credible compromise and the human costs of conflict have continued to escalate. The odds against success remain high. Even as the Syrian regime has observed a cessation in hostilities, it has ignored agreements to redeploy troops and heavy weapons from population centers. However, even if the current iteration of the Annan mission fails, a sequential diplomatic approach remains the only avenue by which an international consensus might be reached; without such consensus there is simply no hope for a near-term resolution of the conflict through managed transition.
The ceasefire that is at the crux of current attention is not an end in and of itself. The six-point plan endorsed by the Arab League and the United Nations also seeks to establish a Syrian-led political process that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. While the terms of a transition are left unspecified, it should be clear to Russia and others that any credible managed transition will require the removal of Assad from power. There can be no stability in Syria if the regime remains fully intact. In light of the indispensability of Russia and China and their reservations about the consequences of a political transition, focus should now shift to fashioning a serious transition process that retains specific figures and institutions from the Assad regime while allowing for genuine political change to take root. If international consensus cannot be marshaled around such basic realities then Syria is destined to suffer from escalating and protracted conflict that is the sole alternative to a diplomatic resolution.
The limitations of the Annan mission and its mandate are a reflection of the polarized international debate on Syria and the decidedly poor options available for ending the bloodshed. Chief among the complaints against the Annan initiative has been the argument that it is buying time for the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on peaceful and armed opposition. However, the Assad regime has made abundantly clear that its only means for dealing with the opposition is by force. As such, it is in no need of cover.
It is also not the case that the Annan initiative is blocking more consequential action. There is currently no appetite for direct foreign military intervention in Syria, despite continued hopes by some that Turkey would lead such an effort. Sharpened Turkish rhetoric, particularly that of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has fueled these hopes among the Syrian opposition and its supporters. While Turkish officials have privately confirmed the existence of contingency planning regarding various types of intervention, there is no real sense of imminent Turkish action, especially without regional and international backing. Short of massive refugee flows, clear evidence of outright Syrian support for Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerillas, or escalating cross-border spillover violence, Turkey will not opt for unilateral military options.
Furthermore, the logistical and operational difficulties of arming the Free Syrian Army, coupled with the manifest dangers of this approach, have hindered any serious efforts to do so. While the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, offered resolute words regarding the arming of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) during the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Syria group in February, actual support has not materialized. This gap between rhetoric and actions on the part of Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar, is partly a reflection of the lack of consensus within the anti-Assad camp regarding the wisdom of arming the Syrian opposition. But as importantly, it is also a reflection of the lack of depth of Saudi and Qatari diplomacy and their inability to effectively carry out such policies. While the Gulf is in a dominant position in terms of its ability to set the diplomatic agenda of the Arab League, without direct assistance from Turkish or Jordanian intelligence, it is unclear whether the policy apparatus of either country could manage such a complex process beyond simply funding various favored Syrian groups. The lack of serious policy coordination between the Gulf and Turkey should also be a warning as to the seriousness of their intent.
Against this backdrop, the Annan mission will serve to clarify the intentions of the interested international parties, including Russia, which has positioned itself, buttressed by China, as the chief obstacle to international efforts to initiate a managed transition. For Russia, the question presented by current diplomatic efforts is whether their interests can be satisfied through a managed transition process despite their longstanding objections to policies that Russia deems to compromise state sovereignty. It will also clarify the sincerity, or lack thereof, of Russia's current stance and whether it is only driven by its desire to be treated as a great power and to be consulted on critical issues of international security. This is particularly the case since Russia demonstrably supported the Annan plan. Its own credibility as an international player is put into doubt by its inability to persuade the Assad regime to fulfill its own obligations.
Any assumption that the Assad regime could crush the armed opposition and reestablish order on its terms should now be moot. While Assad has proven willing to slaughter his own people, his regime has proven unable to decisively crush the opposition to his continued rule. Despite recent tactical successes for the Assad regime, the armed opposition cannot simply be wiped out by military means. Following the massive destruction of the Baba Amr district of Homs and the high toll on civilians, it is likely that the FSA will shift from seeking to openly hold territory to more traditional insurgent tactics. While this will lead to greater resilience, it will also likely result in increased civilian casualties and human suffering.
If all avenues for diplomacy are shut down, the conflict in Syria will escalate and the end goal will be a toppling of the regime. Particularly for Russia, such an outcome represents an all or nothing scenario that would risk Russian strategic interests and further poison Russia's relations with much of the Arab world. It should be clear that there can be no return to the status quo ante. The sequential progression of diplomacy now offers both Russia and China an opportunity to engage in a process that does not create a threatening new precedent while also limiting the destabilizing spillover effects that would accompany heightened sectarian conflict and the likely increase in transnational jihadi involvement.
Syrian opposition figures who have met with Chinese officials have also noted emerging but tentative signs of a potential shift by China, which would leave Russia much more exposed if it casts a lone veto against any further U.N. Security Council action.
In recent conversations with several senior members of the Syrian opposition, it is clear that there remains space for non-military options and diplomatic solutions in the minds of certain sectors of the opposition. This attachment to diplomacy on the part of some political leaders comes despite facing severe bottom-up pressure insisting upon outright regime change through military options. These individuals described the parameters of a managed transition that should satisfy Russian and Chinese concerns while preserving space for a democratic transition. The broad outlines of such a process would include a dignified exit for the president and his most trusted aides while limiting the vetting of the security services to the core leaders of the crackdown. These limited steps would focus attention in immediate terms solely on the 50 or so individuals most culpable for the regime's brutal crackdown. While such steps would undoubtedly be controversial and entail wrenching compromises, in limiting the focus in this fashion, a managed transition would preserve Alawite control of the security sector and would serve as a curb against reprisals and escalated sectarian conflict. In exchange, the transition process would mandate an expedited multi-party electoral process, guarantees of a free and fair process, and an opportunity to craft a new constitution, in addition to fulfilling the existing obligations of the regime as laid out in the Arab League's six-point plan.
Clear signals of the inevitability of a managed transition will also send positive signals to fence-sitters, as such regime figures and potential defectors are calculating their personal interests based on an assessment of the internal balance of power. Shifting their assumptions about the intent of diplomatic efforts could encourage defections and regime fragmentation.
The practicability of this type of managed transition is dependent on the ability of the Syrian National Council (SNC) to unify its ranks inside and outside Syria in support of diplomacy and compromise solutions. It will also require much greater internal consensus than the fragmented Syrian opposition has displayed to date. While rejection of political solutions has increased as regime brutality has escalated, creating de-escalatory momentum and establishing new facts on the ground are the best possible route for limiting the appeal of extremists among the ranks of the opposition.
Such proposals might also be the only path to international consensus regarding Syria's political transition and the only hope for steering the country away from the possibility of increased and protracted violence. If even such far-reaching proposals for compromise are shunned by the supporters of the Assad regime then Syria, its people, and the region will undoubtedly suffer the consequences of proxy conflict and growing sectarian animus.
The current diplomatic process has appeared impotent in the face of the Syrian regime's brutality but with such grim alternatives, the Annan plan and a process of sequential diplomacy remain the last and only hope available for avoiding the worst-case scenarios that might await Syria.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation.
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