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  Global Viewpoint


Balkan lessons for a fragmenting Syria

Veton Surroi is a journalist, writer and politician. He was a senior negotiator for Kosovo in the Rambouillet peace talks in 1999 and the Vienna status talks from 2005 to 2007.

By Veton Surroi

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Syria is not on the path to peace through the present form of the six-point plan of Kofi Annan, supported by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

The plan is based on the goodwill of President Assad to stop the repression of political dissent and punitive military actions against communities where an insurrection has arisen over the last year. The plan also presupposes that once the repression and the killing have stopped, a “dialogue on transition” will begin.

The Syrian authorities have no incentive to change the present pattern of behavior. The Security Council foresaw 30 U.N. monitors in Syria, expanding the number to 300; the next weeks and months can be spent uselessly arguing whether instead of 300 there should be 3,000, but the pattern of behavior will not change, as the Balkans can teach us.

Throughout the 1990s in the Balkans the international community had far more monitors (even peacekeepers in Bosnia), but that did not stop the butchery. The effort to stop killing through monitoring is to rely on the exposure of shame as a restraining moral imperative. But a regime that has already killed 10,000 people in the past 14 months has lost moral considerations of that sort, if it had them earlier. It is not only defiance that comes from the regime now, there is also the element of fear: Those who have killed so far fear the retribution of the future, especially if the opposition continues requesting unrealistically as a precondition the head of the president.

Indeed, the regime is not only continuing to kill, monitors or no monitors, but it is also claiming that within this framework of violence it is conducting a reforming process, through multiparty elections.

The six-point plan, therefore, is failing in both stopping violence in Syria and ensuring a political dialogue. The regime is assuming that it can drag its feet with the implementation of the plan for as long as there is no other alternative on the horizon. It is assuming, as did former President Milosevic of Serbia throughout the Yugoslav disintegration, that the West has no stomach for an international intervention against it. And it seems that the Syrian regime is presently right.

The calculation is that the West fears that an intervention will move the country towards disintegration along sectarian and ethnic lines. This Balkan nightmare scenario of carved out mini-states of Alawites, Kurds and Druze, among others, associated with waves of ethnic and identity cleansing would be exponentially more threatening as the international environment is taken into account: How will all this reflect on Turkey, the Kurdish question, the Golan Heights, Lebanon? And, who would run post-Assad Syria? Even if there were a will for intervention, would it have to go the Kosovo way, without full international legitimacy?

The regime is raising the ante based on these Western fears, especially in a presidential election year in the U.S. But then, there is no need for nightmare scenarios: The International Committee of the Red Cross is saying that already there are indications of civil war in parts of the country.

The continuation of the killings in Syria will not subside, and things can arguably get even worse, with a spiral of violence radicalizing the society as a whole.

The six-point plan of Annan ought to be urgently revisited by the U.S., Russia and the EU at the Security Council. It needs to immediately upgrade two of its points.

 First, it needs to spell out the transition in Syria in explicit terms. Transition is not what Assad is doing at the moment, pretending to hold multiparty elections while neighborhoods are being shelled. Nor is it realistic to expect that transition will be Assad’s upfront resignation as requested by the opposition. Transition should mean an internationally monitored process of establishment of democratic institutions, through an electoral process conducted in a peaceful environment. That means a transition that starts with the presidential election, within the next six months, prepared through a round table between government and opposition represented by the Syrian National Council (with significant representation in it from the Local Coordination Committees) mediated by an international third party. The rough legal preconditions for such a process are already vaguely there, with a new constitution passed in February that President Assad claims opens up the country for democracy.

Second, it needs to spell out security. In order to conduct a transitional political process, there needs to be a radical change of behavior on the ground. The army needs to go back to the barracks and stay there, while at the same time the opposition Syrian National Council needs to call for a halt in any insurgent guerilla activity of the Free Syrian Army. The U.N. should deploy lightly armed peacekeepers, under a neutral (say, Scandinavian) command, establishing themselves at the perimeters of the cities. In the Ministry of Interior, a senior international police mission should monitor basic policing activities as part of the preparations for a peaceful electoral process.

The mandate of the Annan monitors in Syria will end in July. There is no need to wait for the end of their mandate to understand that they cannot change the situation. Much earlier than the mandate expires, within the next 45 days, there ought to be an upgrade in the six-point plan. Within this time frame, the U.S., Russia and the EU, with consultations of the Arab League, should prepare the conditions for a negotiation between the government and opposition, under a Chapter VII U.N. Security Council resolution. The terms of reference for this negotiation should include non-negotiable principles, such as a renouncing of violence in the political process, and preservation of the integrity and sovereignty of Syria as well as its multiethnic and multicultural (sectarian) character. They should also include the necessary changes for free and fair elections (non-discriminatory clauses, freedom of speech and expression clauses, etc.). President Assad should understand that further use of army and uniformed or non-uniformed repression will be translated, for the sponsors of this resolution, as a threat to regional peace.

The Troika (the U.S., Russia and the EU), through a consultation process among the Syrian parties, should also help in expanding the agenda of the negotiation. Among other issues to be discussed would be the community rights charter, that is, a bill of rights for the Syrians who find themselves in a minority position — an essential precondition for a country that moves from minority to majority rule.

It has been repeated by mediators and diplomats that Syrians should ultimately find their own way to the future. This sounds right, and it should be so. But leaving the Syrian people only to themselves is to sentence them to a prolonged war and bloodletting. This is a conflict that will not be won by force: The regime will not have the power to stop by force the will of the majority, and the opposition cannot defeat the Syrian army as it is today and for some time to come.

The international community cannot stand by, or rely on formulas such as those that have been defeated already by the tragedy of the Balkans.