All Eyes on Russia as Syria Cease-Fire Deadline Passeshttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Many major players in the Syrian crisis consider the peace plan that reached its deadline Thursday as the final speed bump in figuring out how to get Russia to accept enough pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to stop the violence.
Until now, world capitals have only squabbled over the issue, or dodged it. Kofi Annan, the main architect of the plan on behalf of the United Nations and the Arab League, said starkly this week as the deadline neared, “I think the plan is very much alive, and if you want to take it off the table, what would you replace it with?”
In some ways, the Annan plan needs to fail — which appears most likely — to persuade Russia and China not to wield their veto on Syria resolutions as they have twice previously, diplomats and analysts said. China is basically considered to be following Russia’s lead. “They have been pushing and pushing and pushing for Annan and for mild action at the council, and it didn’t work,” said a United Nations Security Council diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity under his ministry’s guidelines.
Mr. Annan was in Tehran on Wednesday, lobbying Syria’s other main patron to back his initiative. He announced that he had received a letter from the Syrian Foreign Ministry saying the government would respect the cease-fire, which took effect at 6 a.m. local time. But the letter also said the government reserved “the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces or public and private property.”
It is possible that the guns will fall silent, for a time. But the government statement carved out a large enough caveat for tank battalions to drive through. And although the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, and the Free Syrian Army — both based in Turkey — committed to the plan, it is unclear whether they control every group of fighters.
Activists reported no fighting across the country after the deadline for the cease-fire went into effect.
Abu Rami, an activist reached via Skype in the embattled city of Homs, said there had been no gunfire, shelling or other attacks for several hours. “That followed a very bloody night, but the early morning has been very quiet,” he said, noting that there is often a lull around dawn, so more time was needed to see if it really was a cease-fire. The security forces’ checkpoints still dotted the city and government soldiers were still fully deployed, he said. But it will probably be impossible to ascertain with any confidence whether a cease-fire actually takes hold, as there has been no agreement between the Syrian government and Mr. Annan’s team about deploying international monitors. The Syrians have simultaneously demanded their immediate deployment and undermined the effort to negotiate terms, Security Council diplomats said.
Critics of Syria predicted failure from the outset, accusing Mr. Assad of exploiting serial peace initiatives — first by allies he has since alienated, then by the Arab League and now the United Nations — to stall while trying to annihilate his opponents. Experts said that nobody expects the peace plan to take root because ultimately its provisions — allowing for peaceful demonstrations and democratic change — will doom the Assad regime.
Senior diplomats have been contemplating options for “what next.” Even before the foreign ministers of the Group of 8 gathered Wednesday in Washington for two days of negotiations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was talking about the next step.
“There will be a very rough couple of days in trying to determine whether we go to the Security Council seeking action, knowing that Russia is still not on board,” Mrs. Clinton said in a speech Tuesday night. “The Russians have consistently said they want to avoid civil war, they want to avoid a regional conflict, but their refusal to join with us in some kind of constructive action is keeping Assad in power, well armed.”
So “what next” in the Syrian context boils down largely to “what do the Russians want next.”
The consensus among Russian foreign policy experts is that Moscow is little moved by the civilian death toll of over 9,000 people and arguments that there is a moral obligation to intervene. Russia has clearly relished its moment back on the world stage as the critical player, so Security Council diplomats and other analysts believe the key is engaging Russia’s confidence that it can deliver on an important international issue.
Analysts say the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, believes his country changed the conversation on Syria by rejecting intervention and insisting that the opposition bear some blame for the violence. “For him, it is very important to continue that success, and show that Russia can change the paradigm, the discourse around Syria,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a top foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “In order to support its own prestige, it needs diplomatic success.”
Some analysts believe many capitals, in particular Washington in an election year, were happy to hide in the shadow of Moscow’s intransigence because all Syria choices are fraught with peril. Its sectarian fault lines run like trip wires across the Middle East, and military intervention in what started as a peaceful movement has been seen as too messy.
“Is the United States willing to lead either from the front or from behind? So far the answer to that question is ‘No,’ ” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
With the anticipated collapse of the Annan plan, the question of military action will resurface.
Turkey has repeatedly suggested a buffer zone or humanitarian corridors along its 550-mile border with Syria. Its senior officials resurrected the idea this week after two Syrian refugees were killed near the border and several thousand flooded across in just days.
The volatile Turkish border is the one area where the Russians worry that their plan to obstruct foreign intervention may fall apart. “It might undermine what Russia achieved in drawing a line in the sand,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The go-for-broke plan at the Security Council would be to impose international sanctions as well as an arms embargo and to refer the top leaders to the International Criminal Court.
However, more logistical support and some training for the opposition appears most likely to be the next step.
In Istanbul, Syrians seeking arms who found their way to the Syrian National Council headquarters last week said they were promised money to buy them on the black market at home because smuggling them across the Turkish border was still considered a dubious proposition.
“You have to rely on the determination and the power of the resistance inside Syria,” said Cengiz Candar, a leading analyst on the Arab world in Turkey. “They have it, but it is not enough to overthrow the regime. So it will take time.”