There is a faint hope that civil war in Syria can be avoided. But the level of mistrust between the government and the opposition is so high that anything, even a simple loss of temper could trigger a resumption of the violence. The G8 foreign ministers will meet in Washington on April 11 to discuss ways to prevent this and consider options should the worse come to the worst.
Ceasefire deadline: April 12
Ministers are preparing for the G8 summit at Camp David, scheduled for mid-May. Vladimir Putin will attend as Russia’s new president. Hopefully, Syria’s future will have become clearer by then. Other important issues on the agenda are the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea and the U.S. ballistic missile defense plans for Europe.
Syria will be the main topic of discussion at a closed session of the UN Security Council on April 11. The situation in Syria is extremely volatile, the parties to the protracted conflict are dangerously close to breaking point, and there is too little time left for diplomatic maneuver given that the situation is continuing to deteriorate.
There are only two options: either the ceasefire will be enforced this week, to be followed by a political agreement on political reforms, including early presidential elections, or the violence will continue, in which case the West, Turkey and Arab countries will become ever more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, their choices limited to the threat of new sanctions or direct military intervention.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Washington with new information from his Syrian colleague Walid al-Muallem, who was in Moscow for talks early this week. These talks provoked a storm of media interest but gave no clear indication if the conflicting sides will succeed in enforcing a ceasefire in the remaining two days.
The Syrian minister said that government troops are pulling out of the conflict areas and the rest mostly depends on the opposition and its patrons.
The 48-hour countdown began at 6 a.m. on April 10. Government troops have until 6 a.m. on April 12 to return to their barracks from the cities and towns where they have been busy fighting the opposition over the past year.
Sources in Syria say that the shooting has not stopped completely and more people have been killed in the last 24 hours. The situation on the border with Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq remains tense as refugees, rebel fighters and arms smugglers try to flee Syria.
It was largely thanks to Russian diplomatic efforts that the Syrian government accepted the peace plan drafted by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It was extremely difficult for the government to decide to withdraw troops as stipulated by one of the six provisions of Annan’s plan, but at least it has started doing so.
“Some countries are openly discussing the possibility of supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition,” said Yevgeny Primakov, a prominent Russian expert on the Middle East. “Who can guarantee that the opposition will not launch an armed offensive after the government pulls its troops back?”
Primakov knows both President Bashar Assad and his foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, and understands why they are insisting that the opposition give a firm guarantee to abide by the provisions of the peace plan.
The Syrian minister must surely have been told in Moscow that it would be unrealistic to expect a written guarantee from the opposition, as the Syrian foreign ministry demanded two days ago, because the opposition is fragmented and its actions are not coordinated. On the other hand, such guarantees could be requested from those in a position of influence over the opposition, in particular, the chief mediator in the conflict, UN envoy Kofi Annan.
Walid al-Muallem mentioned this at a news conference before leaving Moscow. For his part, Sergei Lavrov promised to discuss the issue at a meeting with Annan and his Western colleagues in Washington.
Russia, which pressurized the Syrian government into accepting Annan’s plan, will now insist that the United States, France and other players force the opposition to refrain from making dangerous political statements or launching armed raids.
“We hope that everyone involved will work without a hidden agenda, without hidden geopolitical plans, but in the fundamental interests of the Syrian people,” Lavrov said on Tuesday after his talks with al-Muallem.
Peacemakers from the Golan Heights
If everything goes as planned, technical issues, such as who will monitor the ceasefire and how to prevent any recurrence of the violence, will have to be addressed on the fly.
Lavrov believes that “international observers should be dispatched to Syria immediately.” There are grounds to assume that Kofi Annan shares Lavrov’s view. Initially, this function could be fulfilled by officers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO).
These UNTSO military observers, among them Russians, have for several years been deployed in the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied during its war with Syria in 1967. It would be easy to redeploy part of them to Syria, to be reinforced later with new observers, provided both sides in the conflict agree to their presence and they achieve the desired result.
Talks on this issue are being conducted in Damascus by General Robert Mood (Norway), the UNTSO chief until 2011 commissioned to assist Kofi Annan on April 1, 2012.
Russia has indicated that it has done its bit, that is, encouraged the Syrian government to withdraw its troops. But it is unclear how the opposition will react and whether the circumstances are favorable for a peaceful solution.
*Yelena Suponina is a Middle East scholar and a political commentator for The Moscow News.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.