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Syria. Priority today must be de-escalation

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Damascus/Brussels - With the Syrian crisis having taken a perilous turn, predictable obstacles in implementing UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan should not lead to dropping what - for now at least - remains the only serious option on the table.

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Syria’s Phase of Radicalisation, the latest policy briefing by the International Crisis Group, examines what has driven President Bashar Assad to unleash his loyalist forces and opposition groups to escalate their own violence. It concludes that in the absence of a realistic, workable alternative, the best (if slim) chance to halt this slide is to build on aspects of the envoy’s initiative and achieve broad international consensus around a more detailed roadmap.

A year into the uprising, violence has crossed several horrifying thresholds. Regime forces have subjected entire neighbourhoods to intense bombardment. Within large cities, massive bomb attacks have taken the lives of innocent civilians. Perhaps most sickening of all have been pictures displaying the massacre of whole families, including the shattered skulls of young children. This escalation has not elicited a meaningful response from key players, making it likely that the situation will only get worse.

“Conditions presently exist in which extreme forms of violence are becoming routine”, warns Peter Harling, Crisis Group’s Iraq, Lebanon and Syria Project Director. “This will empower the most radical elements on all sides, justifying the worst forms of regime brutality and prompting appalling retaliation. Should these trends persist, the current death toll likely will appear modest in hindsight”.

The outside world is caught between four costly postures. Iran and Hizbollah support the regime unconditionally. Russia and China put the onus on regime foes at home and abroad to defuse the situation. The West has exhausted its economic and diplomatic leverage and tiptoes around the question of military intervention. Saudi Arabia and Qatar threaten to arm the opposition but it is easy to see how such efforts can backfire - and difficult to see how they might bring a well-armed regime to its knees.

All of which has ensured that the regime finds itself in its comfort zone, perceiving no immediate threats either to itself or its leaders’ lifestyle; bolstered by the blind backing of hard-core supporters; convinced that the international community will do very little; and persuaded that the balance of power has shifted in its favour over the past several weeks.

Without renouncing prospects for a genuine political agreement on a transition - which will require a shift in the diplomatic or military balance of power - the priority today must be de-escalation. Action should be taken to flesh out Annan’s plan regarding the make-up and mandate of an observer mission, mechanisms to ensure weapons are not smuggled through Syria’s borders and procedures to investigate the worst acts of bloodshed.

“Full and timely implementation of Annan’s plan almost surely was never in the cards”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “But that is not a reason to give up on diplomacy so soon. One should not repeat the mistake committed at the time of the Arab League-sponsored initiative: to expect its failure; rush to pull the plug on an unsatisfactory policy; wait for the emergence of an alternative that has been neither considered nor agreed. And then watch, as the killing goes on”.

© Crisis International -
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