Time to get tougher Kofi Annan’s plan is worth trying. But if it fails, a safe haven should swiftly be set up – The Economist
OUTSIDERS have many good reasons for not wading militarily into Syria’s steadily bloodier mire. The country is not like Libya: isolated, sparsely inhabited and vulnerable from the air. It contains a much bigger, more densely populated and diverse population in a tangle of sectarian and tribal knots. Although Syria’s ruler, Bashar Assad matches Muammar Qaddafi in brutality, he has heavier weapons, a bevy of powerful friends abroad and a considerable minority of supporters at home. Any physical involvement, whether military or humanitarian, risks dragging Syria into a prolonged proxy war, as in Iraq a decade ago or Lebanon further back.
Yet the dangers of not intervening are also large and growing. The scale of casualties is already grim—some 10,000 dead in 13 months—and it shows no sign of lessening (see article). Syria will only become harder to put back together. Guns are flooding into the country; radical elements, including extreme Islamists, are coming to the fore; the risk is rising of violence spilling over into fragile Lebanon. Mr Assad’s own Alawite community, which accounts for about a tenth of the total population, faces the prospect of being massacred if, as still seems likely, the regime eventually collapses.
With the West rightly wary of plunging into yet another maelstrom, the Arab League, for years a toothless and often hypocritical body, has admirably taken the lead, asking Kofi Annan, a former secretary of the United Nations, to seek, under the joint aegis of the UN and the league, to persuade Mr Assad to negotiate. The Syrian leader has agreed among other things to undertake a ceasefire, to remove his army and its heavy weapons from Syria’s towns, to let in several hundred UN observers along with foreign correspondents, to free political prisoners and to set about negotiating with his opponents.
The plan deserves a chance—if only because the alternatives of military action and inaction are so unpromising. But also because, Russia, China and Iran, which have buttressed Mr Assad, have agreed to it. As a result Russia, which has real clout, might yet be drawn into negotiating for peace. And if Mr Assad had any sense, he would look for ways of making a soft landing for himself, perhaps accepting the creation of a round table as in Poland in the 1980s, which might allow his Baath party to share power, at least until proper elections are held.
Even so, the odds of success are slim. Although the violence in places has subsided a bit, Mr Assad is already flouting several of the Annan plan’s conditions. Moreover, as soon as the UN observers, who still number less than a score, have gone on their way, the killing tends to intensify again. The sooner the observers reach their complement of 300 or so, the better.
What though if Mr Assad is merely playing for time, as is all too probable? What if he has no intention of conceding real constitutional ground, let alone letting his battered people have a say? Within a few weeks it should be plain which way Mr Assad is going. If it is the wrong direction, more drastic action is need—and in this case that means a safe haven.
Mr Assad has enjoyed the luxury of pounding his foes, city by city, leaving them little space in which to retreat or regroup. His opposition has long pleaded for protected areas along the border with neighbouring Turkey and Jordan, countries that have absorbed the largest number of Syrian refugees. Turkey and its Western allies should start moving now towards meeting the Syrian opposition’s request. Mr Assad needs to know that unless he rapidly adheres to Mr Annan’s proposals, diplomatic and logistical backing will be given to establish humanitarian safe zones—on the Syrian side of the border.