As the 10 April deadline Kofi Annan (the UN and Arab League joint Special Envoy) set for implementation of his peace plan strikes, the conflict's dynamics have taken an ugly and worrying turn. Syrians from all walks of life appear dumbfounded by the horrific levels of violence and hatred generated by the crisis. Regime forces have subjected entire neighbourhoods to intense bombardment, purportedly to crush armed opposition groups yet with no regard for civilians. Within the largest cities, innocent lives have been lost due to massive bomb attacks in the vicinity of key security installations. Perhaps most sickening of all have been pictures displaying the massacre of whole families, including the shattered skulls of young children. The first anniversary of what began as a predominantly peaceful protest movement came and went with only scattered popular demonstrations. Instead, there was immeasurable bloodshed.
Annan's initiative to end the violence and initiate a political transition was greeted with widespread, justifiable scepticism; the Syrian regime's initial acceptance of his plan was met with even broader disbelief. The doubters appear to have been right. A day before it was supposed to have withdrawn its troops from cities and towns, Damascus conditioned that step on written guarantees from opposition groups and hostile foreign states to renounce violence. These dilatory tactics have been facilitated by the international community's divided and hesitant stance, a mix of half-hearted pledges to support armed resistance and pro forma backing of a diplomatic mission it always expected to fail.
Full and timely implementation of Annan's plan almost surely was never in the cards. But that is not a reason to give up on diplomacy in general or the Annan mission in particular. The priority at this stage must be to prevent the conflict's further, dangerous and irreversible deterioration. In the absence of a realistic, workable alternative, the best chance to achieve that is still to build on aspects of the envoy's initiative and achieve broad international consensus around a detailed roadmap.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the recent escalation is that it has not elicited a dramatic response from any key player, making it likely that things will only get worse. The regime has long been locked in a vicious cycle, heightening repression in response to the radicalisation of the popular movement that regime repression was instrumental in bringing about in the first place. The opposition is deeply polarised, between those who harbour the largely illusory hope that the regime will abandon its elusive quest for a “security solution” and those who – by calling to arm rebels on the ground and lobbying for international military intervention – essentially aspire to a “security solution” of their own.
On the whole, the outside word is caught between four costly postures. The regime's allies, Iran and Hizbollah, have supported it unconditionally and have every incentive to continue doing so. Russia and China put the onus on regime foes at home and abroad to defuse the situation, expecting the former to lay down their arms and join an ill-defined “dialogue”, and the latter to cease all forms of pressure. The West remains confused and ambivalent, having exhausted all sources of diplomatic and economic leverage, fearful of the future and tiptoeing around the question of military options. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spoken loudly of their intention to arm the rebellion but, even assuming they demonstrate the commitment and follow-through necessary to establish meaningful supply lines, it is hard to see how such efforts would bring a well-armed regime to its knees. Hamstrung between these conflicting stances, Annan's mission has yet to achieve much traction other than rhetorical endorsements by all concerned.
As the crossing of ever more alarming thresholds suggests, this is not a static stalemate but a conflict in perpetual motion and moving in ever more dangerous ways. Whether regime elements or armed opposition groups are to blame for any particular bomb attack or civilian massacre is an essentially futile debate. The fact is that the regime's behaviour has fuelled extremists on both sides and, by allowing the country's slide into chaos, provided them space to move in and operate. Its security services are likely to do everything in their power to tarnish and vilify the opposition – and the opposition to do whatever it can to avenge the unbearable violence to which it has been subjected. As a result, conditions have been created in which extreme forms of violence may well become routine. In turn, this will further empower the most radical elements on all sides, justifying the worst forms of regime brutality and prompting appalling retaliation in response. Should such trends continue, the conflict's current death toll – already in the thousands – likely will appear modest in hindsight.
For months, Syrian and foreign commentators have debated whether the country was sliding toward civil war. The answer cannot be clear-cut. Civil wars rarely have a discernible starting point, although conventional wisdom later tends to pinpoint a single, dramatic incident as the moment they broke out. Syria undoubtedly is trapped in a civil war dynamic, and the recently witnessed massacre of entire families may well be viewed sometime in the future as that watershed event. For now, everything must be done to prevent further deterioration.
As Crisis Group previously argued, the regime will genuinely shift its approach if and only if it faces a different balance of power – politically, through a change in Moscow's attitude; or militarily, through a change on the ground. Crisis Group likewise expressed its strong preference for the former and significant disquiet regarding the latter. At this writing, neither seems particularly likely in the foreseeable future.
Given the evolving dynamics, Annan's mission, however frustrating, likely will remain the only available option for some time. That period should not be wasted awaiting its end or banking on its collapse. Without renouncing prospects for a genuine political agreement on a transition, the priority today must be to de-escalate the violence. This should be attempted by focusing on and fleshing out ideas being advocated by Annan and purportedly endorsed by the regime.
Foremost among these is a UN monitoring mission, details of which remain to be agreed. As witnessed during the previous, short-lived Arab League effort, the presence of monitors cannot end the violence – but it can restrain regime actions and provide space for peaceful protests. This time, in order to strengthen the mission and ensure that, if successful, it holds, the monitors' mandate, right of access as well as accompanying steps should be more rigorously defined, with a particular focus on the following:
Odds of success admittedly are slim. But far worse than giving this a chance would be to repeat the mistake committed during the last diplomatic, Arab League-sponsored initiative, which also included a monitoring mission: 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.