x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Grumbling from Washington, but policy on Syria has few alternatives

As the United States shows signs of impatience with the Kofi Annan-brokered UN ceasefire in Syria, Washington's options for further pressuring the Al Assad regime are limited, Omar Karmi, Foreign Correspondent, reports.

As the United States shows signs of impatience with the Kofi Annan-brokered UN ceasefire in Syria, Washington's options for further pressuring the Al Assad regime are limited, Omar Karmi, Foreign Correspondent, reports

WASHINGTON // As the United Nations prepares to deploy more monitors to Syria, the options being considered in Washington to support the country's opposition are narrow.

The ceasefire brokered by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, is barely holding and most observers in Washington believe the six-point plan will fail.

If it does, there is growing awareness that US policy to end the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's rule - "the day that we know will come", as the US president Barack Obama said Monday - will necessitate a more robust approach.

Mr Obama announced on Monday what the White House touted as new types of sanctions, targeting companies both within and outside Syria dealing in information technology that could be used by the Damascus regime to suppress protests.

The European Union also placed new sanctions on the Al Assad regime, banning trade in luxury goods and further restricting the sale of items used to repress dissidents.

The EU also expanded the blacklist of dual-use goods, such as fertiliser, that can be used to clamp down on dissent.

UN observers, of whom only eight of a planned contingent of 300 are so far on the ground, are preparing to deploy in full force next week as the violence continues.

The UN estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since violence broke out in March of last year.

The US and Saudi Arabia are pinning the blame for the continuing violence primarily on the Syrian government.

The regime did not abide by its commitments, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Al Muallemy, told the Security Council on Monday. It is continuing to kill and suppress its people, the envoy said.

American patience is also "exhausted", said Susan Rice, the American UN ambassador, at the same meeting. Ms Rice signalled that the US was already preparing for the Annan plan to fail.

"No one should assume that the US will agree to resume this mission at the end of 90 days. If there is not a sustained cessation of violence, full freedom of movement for all UN personnel and rapid, meaningful progress on all other aspects of the six-point plan, then we must all conclude that this mission has run its course," she said.

US officials rejected criticism that they had no backup plan should diplomacy fail and singled out the "robust" aid programme the US has announced for the Syrian opposition.

On Friday, the State Department published a breakdown of that aid, which was divided into US$33 million (Dh121.2) for humanitarian aid, such as refugee relief and food support, and an unspecified amount for "non-lethal" aid that the department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said was "primarily" communications and logistical support.

Should the Annan plan fail, the US would then go back to the Security Council to seek a "tougher" resolution. "If it is clear that the Syrian regime is acting in bad faith, countries must join together for a stronger UN mandate," a State Department official said.

But going back to the Security Council is unlikely to yield much success should Russia and China continue to oppose a stronger international mandate.

The failure of the Annan initiative, which both countries endorsed, would be unlikely to convince them to change their positions, said Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute for Peace, a Washington-based, government-funded think tank.

"I call that the Russia fallacy: the notion that if Russia sees just how perfidious the Syrian regime's actions are, Moscow will shift its stance. I don't see any signs of that," he said.

US options are also limited by sensitivity to suggestions that Mr Obama might "repeat the mistakes" of his predecessor George W Bush, who was widely criticised for his unilateralism, Mr Heydemann said.

In an election year in which the Obama administration is likely to tout its withdrawal of troops from Iraq and its commitment to doing the same in Afghanistan as significant achievements to a public weary of overseas interventions, US policy is likely to be further constrained.

Nevertheless, Mr Heydemann said, there remain a number of options open to the US, including working with the Group of Friends of Syria, in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar have promised to help finance the armed Syrian opposition.