Far from the screams of tormented Syrians and the booms of government tanks, helicopters, rockets and guns, diplomats returned to the UN Security Council to continue their endless discussions about the Syria quagmire. The Syrian people are paying with their lives for the continuing deadlock.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ignored appeals from former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Even as they met twice in Damascus over the weekend, Syrian forces kept bludgeoning Idlib, the next city targeted after the month-long decimation of Homs.
“It’s going to be difficult, but we have hope,” said Annan after leaving Syria without an answer from Assad to his proposals to end the crisis. “You have to start by stopping the killing and the misery and the abuse that is going on today and then give time for a political settlement.”
Annan joins the short list of officials Assad has consented to meet, listen to their counsel and then rebuff. The UN and the Arab League, the two bodies that asked Annan to serve as their envoy to Syria, were left struggling again to find the formula to turn off Assad’s killing machine. Qatari Prime Minister Al-Thani has called what the Syrian government is doing “systematic genocide.”
Assad has proven to be the most devious of Arab rulers challenged by their own people over the past year. Even as the death toll surpassed 8,000, getting the Assad regime to allow delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid to Homs and other besieged localities has been impossible.
Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief who was initially blocked from entering Syria several weeks ago, finally made a two-day, highly disheartening visit to Homs, before Annan’s visit. She found the Baba Amr neighborhood largely deserted. It bore the brunt of the government’s brutality.
As Syria marks the first anniversary of the uprising and crackdown, Assad seems more entrenched than ever. U.S. intelligence officials concur, noting that the regime’s inner circle, including loyal security officers, remains intact.
Still, several heads of state – including President Obama and those from our European allies – who demanded last summer that Assad “step aside,” continue to proclaim that the Syrian leader will fall. But in the absence of diplomatic leverage, each passing day makes such statements sound more and more like wishful thinking.
Another worrisome result of the impasse is the emergence of second thoughts in the Arab world.
Arab countries that united in the fall to suspend Syria’s Arab League membership and join with the U.S. and European Union in imposing sanctions may be recalculating their collective approach. Arab League foreign ministers, convening in Cairo last Saturday –a meeting also attended by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov – retreated from their earlier demand that Assad step down.
Russia, which together with China twice vetoed Security Council resolutions on Syria, is poised to frustrate any meaningful actions against Assad. Indeed, emphasizing the longstanding Moscow-Damascus alliance, a senior Russian defense official affirmed that his country will continue to supply arms to the Assad regime.
Russia’s position as Syria’s most powerful and dedicated ally, as well as Iran’s support for the Assad regime, emboldens the Syrian leader and makes him feel that his rule is secure and the status quo is sustainable.
Annan, meanwhile, remains hopeful that Assad will respond positively to his proposals to end the crisis. Far more likely is that he may not answer at all.
The death toll will continue to grow and the number of refugees – more than 230,000 already, according to the UN – will have a long-term unsettling impact on Syria’s neighbors. Assad will go ahead with his plans to hold elections for a new parliament, even amidst violence, in May.
With Syria sealed from foreign media access, and U.S., European and Arab embassies shutting down, those concerned about the situation will continue to rely on the photos and videos taken by courageous Syrians and uploaded to the Internet as a permanent record of the regime’s callousness.
Those images alone should move the international community, including the obstinate Russian government, to compel Assad to stop his regime’s assault, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, and discuss a new arrangement for Syrian leadership.
The inexcusable inertia in aiding defenseless Syrians who live at the mercy of their own government is the biggest tragedy so far of the so-called Arab Spring.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Media Relations.