x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Contingency plan for Syria if ceasefire fails

At some point in the near future, it will be useless to pretend there is a ceasefire in Syria unless there is genuine progress on the ground.

The Annan plan has not yet failed in Syria, but it has certainly not succeeded. More than two weeks since the "ceasefire" was put in place, there has been hardly a dent in the violence.

The plan is still in its early stages: just over two weeks old, with only a handful of the 300 UN observers on the ground, the six-point peace outline hasn't been given the chance to go into effect. It appears, however, that the Assad regime is unlikely to allow that chance.

At the weekend, the state-run Syrian media accused former UN secretary general Kofi Annan of "outrageous" bias. Mr Annan's statements - that the regime continues to shell civilian neighbourhoods - are, of course, obviously true. If the regime is so readily willing to jettison the Annan plan, which is probably its last chance at a negotiated solution, then it is difficult to imagine this ceasefire will ever really take effect.

None of the six points have been fulfilled. There have been no talks with the opposition; tanks are still stationed throughout Syrian cities; and the violence has actually seemed to spike in recent days. The reason for continued patience is not born of optimism that Damascus will make progress on any of these points; rather, this plan has the imprimatur of the UN Security Council, and the process needs to be followed in order to move any consensus forward.

Only 100 of the UN observers are supposed to be on the ground by mid-May. Even that deadline might be too far away. On Sunday, Lebanon's investigation of a ship, which it claims was carrying weapons to Syria's armed opposition, strongly indicates that the purported ceasefire is a fig leaf allowing both sides to consolidate power. France has promised to bring the issue back before the Security Council by Thursday if there is no progress.

At some point, certainly in the relatively near future, it will be useless to pretend there is a ceasefire unless there is progress on the ground. But our support for the Annan plan was never based on a hope that Damascus would suddenly come to its senses. The two UN resolutions are the only international consensus that has included China and Russia - if the regime fails to abide by the agreed terms, there will be pressure on Beijing and Moscow, although the latter has admittedly shown little inclination to protect innocent Syrian lives.

Following the process of the Annan plan is vital for diplomatic reasons, although the regime's continued belligerency is costing lives. If that does not change - and Mr Annan himself has said it has not - very quickly the UN Security Council will have to consider other options.