x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

UN mission in Syria, far from being useless, is essential

Calls to end the Annan mission in Syria play into the hands of both the regime and extremists within the opposition. An internationally mediated solution is optimal to keep Syria's institutions intact and prevent a power monopoly by extremists.

Rising voices from within the Syrian opposition are calling for an end to the peace mission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan, and are declaring the failure of diplomacy.

On Thursday Colonel Riad Al Asaad, the chief of the Free Syrian Army, invited Mr Annan to declare that the UN-Arab League mission is a failure. Some military leaders on the ground threatened to end their ceasefire if the regime would not stop using violence.

These calls have been matched by similar comments from many activists and leaders in the political opposition. There is also a prevailing media narrative that diplomacy has failed and that it is time for Mr Annan to get out of the way.

These calls are misguided, perhaps cynical. They threaten to disrupt a process that, while not deterring the regime from killing people, is essential in building an international consensus to exert more pressure on Damascus.

The mission is also important to document the regime's violations, for the purposes of any future legal action or a truth and reconciliation process.

It is also needed to build momentum for the peaceful aspect of the Syrian revolution: although this has been overshadowed by fighting, the two main cities Aleppo and Damascus are increasingly joining the movement through peaceful protests and civil disobedience.

Criticism of Mr Annan's mission has focused on its failure to accomplish its goals, mainly the ceasefire. That was inevitable before the mission began, given the regime's behaviour. But that is not a strong reason to declare that diplomacy has failed.

There are, in fact, at least two reasons that ending the mission now would be a dangerous move.

First, it is unclear what the next step would be if the mission is ended now. Mr Annan, like Russia before him, has said there is no Plan B for the mission, and that the alternative is an "all-out civil war".

(In January the Syrian opposition campaigned to end the Arab League observer mission, but there were clear reasons for that. First, the head of that mission, General Mohammed Al Dabi of Sudan, lacked credibility, having been involved in Sudanese militias akin to Syria's Shabbiha thugs. More significantly, the Arab League was clear that if the mission failed, the League would refer the matter to the UN Security Council, as it did.)

Second, there is no mechanism for Mr Annan to take further action if he declares his mission a failure. In fact, saying that without making a final report (after the mission expires in mid-July) would provide Damascus and its allies with a pretext to dismiss any further UN-mandated action. Civil strife would certainly intensify.

President Bashar Al Assad is clearly manipulating the mission to tighten his grip on the country.

Alongside the mission, he is trying to engage self-styled opposition figures inside Syria to appease the middle class, those who fear foreign intervention and the international community. He knows that his promises of reform, offered last year, are reaching their final stages (constitution, parliamentary elections and then formation of a government) without making any real change, a realisation that might soon bring more people closer to the opposition. Mr Al Assad hinted at the fact in a speech on Sunday, saying many of those who took to the streets to support him have profound grievances against the regime, but that they reject chaos.

If observers remain in Syria, we are likely to see more fence-sitters joining the revolution. Shelving the plan, on the other hand, may help the regime and its allies buy more time. So the current process must be allowed to take its course.

Meanwhile, though, more pressure must be applied, more observers must be deployed and a time frame for the mission is needed.

As we have seen over 14 months, fence-sitters tend to join the revolution when it is predominantly peaceful and move towards the regime when fighting prevails. When the Arab observers were in Syria from late December to mid-January, peaceful protests increased significantly. The protests faded after the observers were sent home. The opposition must not allow the same thing to happen again by ending the Annan mission, as the peaceful face-off in Damascus and Aleppo is gaining momentum.

Calls to end the mission play into the hands of both the regime and extremists within the opposition. An internationally mediated solution is optimal to keep Syria's institutions intact, preventing chaos, and to ensure a peaceful transition and prevent extremists seizing a monopoly on power.

Elements within the opposition are more interested in an armed conflict than a peaceful one. Armed conflict will also benefit many who joined the FSA to take credit for any potential victory.

There is also a danger that the Syrian National Council will, as it has done before, heed the rising calls from the FSA for fear of angering the activists on the ground; the FSA is more popular than the SNC and overrated by activists.

In January Col Asaad called on the Arab League to "announce that [its mission was] a failure" and to "step aside and let the UN take … responsibility". But activists later lamented the observers' departure, as the regime continued to kill, with impunity and without witnesses.

Rather than ending the mission, the Syrian opposition and the international community must throw all their weight behind it.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140