As long as the international community, whether through the UN or other international organisations, remains divided over the Syrian crisis, the commitment of its main protagonists to act will seem weak. Stopping violence in Syria requires credible commitment, thorough consensus and stronger political will from the international community as a whole, because as the main peace broker it holds the responsibility to make sure that Assad’s regime abides by its obligations and feels isolated and therefore pressured enough to take the threat of further international action seriously. Without such ingredients, peace remains a long way off for the Syrian people.A compromised UN-backed peace plan
Negotiations at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to agree on decisive military intervention and adequate sanctions under Chapter VII have stalled as China and Russia pledged support to the Damascus government. However, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has repeatedly called upon the UNSC permanent five members – China, France, Russia, UK and USA – to reach consensus to bring peace and relief to Syrians and to find, if nothing else, a political outcome to the crisis. Last month, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as the joint special envoy of the UN and the League of Arab States, negotiated a six-point peace plan to halt the violence in Syria. The peace process involves establishing a ceasefire, the withdrawal of all heavy weapons and artillery, the granting of humanitarian access to targeted areas, the release of all arbitrarily detained persons and the eventual initiation of a Syrian-led dialogue between the government and the opposition for a smooth political transition.
Following the peace negotiations, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2042 on 14 April 2012 creating the UN mission to Syria, UNSMIS. The UNSC thus authorised a team of 30 unarmed UN observers to monitor compliance with the agreed upon ceasefire and Annan’s peace plan. In support of this endeavour, the UNSC met again a week later and adopted a new resolution boosting the previous one by sending a total of 300 UN observers over an initial period of 90 days for the same purposes. However, these resolutions remain narrow both in scope and effects, as they exclude internationally imposed sanctions or any type of external interventions in a context where violence remains problematic. The Arab League consequently decided to “assign its Arab representatives in the UN Security Council in the meeting set to take place May 5 to ask the Security Council to protect Syrian civilians immediately.”
Grim prospects for UNSMIS and the peace process?
With a ceasefire already compromised as violence continues despite the presence of many UN observers, growing concern has surfaced over the capacity for Annan’s peace plan to ensure effective compliance. Kofi Annan, briefing the Security Council on 24 April, deemed the situation in Syria ‘unacceptable’ and urged both sides to halt violence against civilians and withdraw heavy weaponry from the streets. In seeking to reach a political solution at all costs to what resembles a civil war, the international community, according to BBC analysts, engaged in a dangerous gamble by hoping that 300 UN observers would be sufficient to alter conflict dynamics on the ground and help secure compliance to the peace plan.
Yet immediately after the brief passage of UNSMIS observers through the cities of Hama, Idlib and Douma, human rights activists once again found themselves victims of lethal attacks. Human Rights Watch in its 3 May report documents the government-led offensive in the Idlib governorate “causing the death of at least 95 civilians,” amounting to war crimes. The Syrian authorities blame the attacks on terrorist armed groups, namely the rebel Free Syrian Army, while tanks and heavy military arsenal are still in the streets even though they had been expected to be withdrawn from population centres by 10 April in compliance with the peace plan. While neither the rebel nor the governmental armies seem inclined to respect the ceasefire, the international community keeps sending the wrong message through the obvious conflicting views of its main decision-makers. China and Russia have showed weak resolve within the UNSC to adopt decisive action against Syria, while France’s minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppe proposed on 25 April to resort to military intervention should the peace plan fail. On the US side, the Obama administration unilaterally endeavoured to impose sanctions on Assad’s regime should human rights abuses persist. Although China has softened its stand towards non-intervention, Russia, in spite of its potentially instrumental role in ensuring Syria’s compliance, has continued to support Assad, thus stalling any further action by the Security Council.
Civilian lives at stake
In the meantime, civilians are dying in Syria. Since the HRC 19th session came to a close on 23 March, the humanitarian situation in Syria has continued to deteriorate. In commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, CIVICUS co-organised a side event at the HRC on 14 March to raise awareness on the dire situation for human rights defenders. According to the UN, once heavy attacks against the city of Homs started, the death toll increased to 9,000 – mostly civilians – while tens of thousands more have been displaced or have fled. During its 19th session, the HRC exerted pressure on the Syrian government to grant wider access to humanitarian aid, carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Aran Red Crescent in particular, to Homs, Aleppo and Idlib.
Human rights activists such as Mazen Darwish, President of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, are being arrested, brutally interrogated and thrown in jail without fair trial, in violation of the rule of law and their mental and physical integrity. Journalists, aid workers and civil society organisations report countless acts of violence and torture targeting protestors and other civilians, while the UN Commission of Inquiry described the violence in its reports as amounting to crimes against humanity. Not only have such crimes gone unpunished over the past 14 months, but they have also been on the rise. Assad’s regime has not responded to any accusation of war crimes and crimes against humanity, consistently blaming any acts of violence on ‘terrorist’ groups. Even if peace can be brokered within the next few months, addressing impunity and accountability issues will prove a difficult process, but paramount to complete reconstruction of Syria’s social fabric and a long-lasting peace.
Stephanie Perazzone, CIVICUS UN Geneva Intern