This policy brief on Syria, released on Tuesday, outlines the International Crisis Group’s recommendations for immediate deescalation of the mounting violence.

Crisis Group says the priority is to “prevent the conflict’s further, dangerous and irreversible deterioration” by fleshing out the existing initiative and reaching broad international consensus around a detailed roadmap.

The violence in Syria has escalated to the brink of civil war via bomb attacks and massacres by the repressive regime against the fragmented and increasingly radical opposition. Left unchecked, the violence will put more civilians at risk for mass atrocities, including the massacre of women and children, and possibly put the Alawites, the Syrian regime’s ruling sect, in danger of being targeted as a group for annihilation by an opposition that seeks revenge.

Changes in the regime’s approach in dealing with the opposition would require unlikely political or militaristic shifts in the global balance of power. As such, the implementation of Kofi Annan’s six-point peace initiative is likely to be neither timely nor comprehensive, but for now it remains the only option.

The ICG brief provides an in-depth analysis into why a successful and lasting cease-fire in Syria as a result of the Annan plan (in combination with the half-measures hatched during the “Friends of Syria” meeting in April for the U.S. and its Arab allies to jointly provide financial and technical support to the opposition) is not a realistic expectation, and then suggests immediate next steps for the international community to take in order to prevent further humanitarian and diplomatic deterioration in the region:

  • “pilot areas where a ceasefire can be reached and a monitoring mission immediately deployed, in order to generate tangible evidence that this approach can produce relief;
  • arrangements under which the regime ultimately would allow virtually all peaceful protests, and the opposition would refrain from organising them in a specified perimeter within Damascus given regime sensitivities;
  • parallel to the above, means of enforcing and verifying a commitment by Syria’s neighbours to freeze weapons transfers and smuggling across their borders; and
  • modalities of a credible investigation into the worst acts of violence to minimise risks of recurrence.”

Tuesday was the deadline set by the six-point Kofi Annan peace plan for Syria to cease fire against the opposition. As foreseen by many experts, Syria has been dragging its feet regarding the cease-fire, not least by ignoring the Tuesday deadline and continuing the violence against insurgents into Wednesday, while attaching numerous last-minute conditions to its active cooperation with Annan’s plan.

A few days before the deadline, for example, Damascus demanded written guarantees from opposition groups and hostile foreign states to renounce violence. International leaders responded with strong condemnations. Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the U.K. would put fresh diplomatic pressure on the UN Security Council to give President Assad’s crimes a “day of reckoning.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Syria agreed to a new cease-fire deadline of Thursday, without the written agreements by the opposition to give up their weapons, but has announced that it reserves the right to retaliate against any new opposition attacks.

As of Thursday, there were reports of a strained and uneasy silence in Syria. The regime has stopped bombarding rebellious towns heavily, but heavy weapons and government troops remain deployed in cities. The situation is very fragile, but perhaps if the cease-fire holds up a bit longer, it will be enough time for the UN to negotiate and send in the first monitoring force as per the Crisis Group’s recommendations. Discussions about installing a monitoring team in Syria have been ongoing since at least late March.

Crisis Group presents some important questions once the practical discussions about a monitoring force are underway again:

  • “What would be required for an adequate third-party monitoring presence and mechanism – in terms of numbers, mandate, capacity – to address violations of the desired reciprocal and unconditional ceasefire, without which it almost certainly would quickly collapse?;
  • Might it first be deployed on a smaller scale, in pilot areas where a ceasefire could be immediately reached, as a way of demonstrating its ability to provide rapid, tangible relief?;
  • What is required to achieve, ensure and verify a credible commitment by Syria’s neighbours to freeze weapons transfers and smuggling across their borders?;
  • How can one precisely define and carry out a regime commitment to tolerate peaceful protests while possibly allowing the authorities to protect some key interests: at a minimum ensuring mass protests do not occur in the heart of the capital (within a specified perimeter the authorities might consider overly sensitive)?; and
  • Initiation of a serious investigation into the worst forms of violence as a critical step toward preventing their recurrence, entailing Syrian cooperation with a team of international experts.”

It is a long shot, but if the immediate deescalation of violence in Syria is successful for long enough to allow a good faith effort to answer the questions above and to act upon those answers, a credible political transition in Syria may still be in the cards.

Image: Reuters

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