Syria: Famine and Civil War - Killed The Faltering Annan Peace Plan

24 May 2012

By Juan Cole

The Syrian government massacre at Houla has probabaly killed the faltering Annan peace plan, which envisioned a ceasefire between the Syrian Baath army and the rebel Free Syrian Army that would be monitored by UN observers. The ceasefire not only has not held, the fighting has intensified as the regime has insisted on using tank and artillery barrages against urban quarters that the FSA controls. Having UN observers watch the carnage isn't useful. Syrian armor is controlled by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the president, who clearly is not interested in any ceasefires and is willing to bombard civilian areas despite the certainty of killing e.g. children. Some 36 children were among the 108 estimated dead at Houla. Increasingly, you could see the al-Assads on trial at the Hague for war crimes not so long from now.

Even after Houla, the regime did not take a breather, going on to kill dozens Sunday into Monday with artillery barrages in Hama and sniping at protesters elasewhere.

The Free Syrian Army warns that it can hardly afford to maintain Annan's supposed ceasefire if the UN can't stop the massacre of civilians.

Even the Russians and the Chinese did not stand in the way of a UNSC condemnation of the use of artillery on civilian neighborhoods. Since only the Syrian army has artillery, the party being blamed was clear.

Annan was in Damascus Monday but it is unclear what further he can accomplish.

Even the current international sanctions have driven the Syrian economy toward full collapse and put in doubt the government's ability to import enough grain and foodstuffs. Syria's own grain crop this year is disappointing. It is not clear that Syrians will put up with this situation much longer, and they only have two choices– to acquiesce in the Baath dictatorship or to rise against it.

Regional intervention to counter Russian and Iranian arms and support is not impossible. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates that country's parliament and is in the running to hold its presidency, called on the international community Monday to do something in the wake of Houla. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both with links to the Brotherhood, want to smuggle arms in to the Free Syrian !army.

The Baath regime seems incapable of real reform. Early in the crisis they could have demoted themselves to a political party and then contested elections, as Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen did in the 1990s. His national Congress still dominates the Yemeni cabinet. Likewise, the dissolved National Democratic Party in Egypt is reforming around Ahmad Shafiq and has a shot at the Egyptian presidency. The Syrian Baath wasn't doomed, only the one-party state and the al-Assad cult of personality. By acting like Muammar Qaddafi, the al-Assad's are risking his fate.

The question is now not what new peace plan can be proposed but how the Syrian Civil War will end.

Satellite Images Show Syrian Army Siege of Houla (BBC)

The UN is debating whether to withdraw its observers from Syria, given that there is no point in deploying observers if they are just going to witness the violence. The point of the observers was to enforce a cease-fire by moral suasion, but there is no ceasefire. Meanwhile, the UN has found evidence of a further massacre, this time at Deir al-Zor, with 15 bodies surfacing, executed as though by criminal gangs.

The BBC has obtained satellite photographs of the central Syrian town of Houla at the time of its siege by Syrian artillery. Analysts confirm that the Syrian positions are consistent with their being in control of the scene. The artillery likely gave cover to the Shabiha paramilitary thugs deployed by Damascus, who infiltrated the town and massacred the inhabitants with knives. Others were killed by punitive artillery strikes. The faintly absurd denunciations of the massacre by the Baath spokesman as the work of ‘armed gangs' are given the lie by the photographs. How likely is it that armed gangs could operated with impunity under the nose of the Syrian artillery corps?

As I predicted, the Houla massacre knocked some Syrians off their fence. Earlier this week, Sunni merchants of some quarters of Damascus staged a general strike, declining to open their shops. These Sunni merchants are a backbone of the regime, and they were risking government contracts by this protest. The regime is losing more and more of the country.

A dark cloud on the horizon is the possibility of direct intervention in Syria, or on the Lebanon-Syrian border, by Israel. Any such Israeli action would destroy the uprising, making it impossible for Syrians on the fence to oppose the Baath regime, since that would make them de facto allies of Israel.


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