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Military element to Annan's Syria plan looks inevitable   

The National - 03 May, 2012
Author: Michael Young

There is much to criticise in the plan devised by Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy on Syria. However, Mr Annan's intention to end the Syrian carnage is sound and necessary. Unfortunately, there has been little creative thinking, in particular among the so-called Friends of Syria group, to give the plan teeth.

Mr Annan's propositions are a potpourri. His ambition is to break the momentum of armed confrontation and return Syria to a situation in which the regime of President Bashar Al Assad would have to permit peaceful protests, presumably protected by international observers. The envoy is thus echoing the Arab League plan of last November and December, although this time with more muscular backing. His assumption is that ever-larger protests will erode Mr Al Assad's authority, ultimately bringing him down.

The second facet of the Annan plan, however, is rather different. It calls for an all-inclusive Syrian dialogue over reform, which would include the president, or someone named by him. Since Mr Al Assad is not in the least inclined to cede power, or open up the political space, the process gives him latitude to neutralise the opposition and remain in office. Not only does this tend to undermine the first objective in the plan, it is unacceptable to most segments of the Syrian opposition, making continuation of the armed insurrection likely.

These two irreconcilables have only heightened the tensions in Syria. Mr Al Assad will ignore conditions that weaken his rule, while the disjointed armed opposition, whose ties with the political opposition in the Syrian National Council are tenuous, will not soon discontinue its resistance as it receives weapons through bordering countries.

There are worrisome reports that jihadists, some from as far as Chechnya, are entering Syria. This is music to the ears of the Syrian leadership, which has sought to portray itself as combating an Islamist insurgency.

That is why Mr Annan's plan requires a military component. That's not to say that he must prepare direct foreign intervention in Syria - a near impossibility in the political climate of today. Rather, governments opposed to Mr Al Assad must help to reduce the growing chaos in the Syrian opposition, particularly among armed units on the ground. This they can begin doing by organising and training the opposition, regulating as best they can the types of weapons entering Syrian territory, and better integrating military efforts with a political strategy, be it the Annan proposal or some revised version of it.

This will not be easy, since Mr Annan's scheme specifically seeks to avert a military approach. Russia has insisted that pressure be put on the Free Syrian Army to end its operations, and it will try to block further militarisation. The problem is that the situation is deteriorating anyway, and is escaping the control of the international community. By allowing a policy vacuum at the military level, the Friends of Syria and Russia are conceding a key dimension of the Syrian conflict to those on both the Syrian government and opposition side with no interest in a settlement.

What are some of the measures that can be explored? Refugee communities, given the frustration and hardships that they face, are potential hotbeds of extremism. To leave the Syrian refugees, particularly those in Turkey, without an organisational anchor is dangerous, especially if jihadists seize the initiative in the fighting. Young men have to be taken in hand, given a purpose, and shown that they can play a meaningful role in a new Syria.

In this context it would be beneficial to establish the embryo of a police force, which could one day assist in restoring security in a post-Assad Syria, or even in so-called humanitarian corridors if that becomes necessary. A vital part of such a project would be to instruct recruits that, because they will become the defenders of a truly civil order in a future Syria, they must reflect this in their behaviour and values, which must emphasise reconciliation and tolerance.

Another step could be to impose a monitoring mechanism over weapons deliveries to the Syrian opposition. Some might regard this as the very antithesis of the Annan plan. In a way it is. However, weapons are entering Syria one way or another, allegedly through middlemen over whom there is apparently minimal influence. This is neither in the interest of the Friends of Syria nor of Russia and China, whatever their disagreements over Syria.

Closely supervising the supply effort also can represent a way of reining in the armed opposition and making sure that its activities buttress negotiations towards a political transition.

For the international community to put all its eggs in Mr Annan's basket makes little sense. There is a better than even chance that his endeavours will not succeed.

On the other hand, the envoy has created an environment, albeit one that is fragile, that could facilitate a combination of military and political pressures. Since a majority in the Syrian opposition, the Friends of Syria countries, and Moscow and Beijing all have no desire to see Syria turned into a jihadist haven, they have a stake in preventing an armed struggle that is unrestrained.

It is obvious that for Syria to return to normalcy, Mr Al Assad will have to leave office. Even the Russians, allegedly, have been willing to acknowledge this reality. The Syrian president will exploit the jihadist threat to derail such an outcome. That is precisely why Mr Annan's plan requires a military complement - not to undercut it, but rather to better push for a negotiated solution while avoiding fragmentation of the opposition and a hijacking of the Syrian cause by outsiders.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
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