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Annan Should Talk to Putin, Not Assad, to Fix Syria

Illustration by Bloomberg View

June 5 (Bloomberg) -- Kofi Annan’s United Nations-Arab League mission to broker peace in Syria has failed.

It was also worth the attempt. Without the mission’s 300 observers, we wouldn’t know the scale and nature of the executions that took place last week in Houla and Deri al-Zour.

But the UN effort has outlived its usefulness. At this point, it is giving diplomatic cover to Russia, the prime protector of the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, to block stronger international action.

This is why, when the former UN secretary general reports June 7 to the UN Security Council, he should suggest ending the mission early. It is perhaps the only way to make clear that responsibility for the carnage belongs to Assad and, by extension, his supporters on the Security Council: Russia and China.

Sectarian Bloodshed

What Houla indicates is that the sectarian civil war between Syria’s Sunnis and Alawites that the world had long feared has begun. Assad’s claim in a speech June 3 that terrorists conducted the slaughter of fellow Sunnis to create an international outcry is laughable. Any evidence there is suggests that the Alawite Shabiha militia, working in tandem with the government military, was responsible. Satellite photographs show Shabiha units were positioned around Houla at the time of the attack, which suspiciously took place during a pause in shelling by the Syrian military.

So what should be done? Pressure is rising for the Obama administration and its European, Sunni Arab and Turkish allies to act, with the suggestions of arming Syria’s opposition (Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney), launching Libya-style airstrikes (Republican Senator John McCain) or creating safe zones (Democratic Senator John Kerry).

All the proposed courses for military intervention are problematic, for reasons we’ve set out before. Above all, proponents haven’t explained how they would control the aftermath of a successful intervention that the U.S. and its allies would then own -- for example, creating a new government, securing Syria’s large chemical weapons depots, or protecting the country’s Alawite and Christian minorities from revenge massacres. Nor have they explained what part of the fragmented opposition forces they would arm and coordinate with, or how to avoid widening the conflict to a regional Sunni-Shiite contest.

Yet we share the growing frustration and horror at events in Syria. Every remaining step toward isolation of the regime, its military and its finances should be taken without delay. Indictment with war crimes for all implicated in directing the killings should be threatened -- though not yet implemented, leaving open a road to exile for Assad and his henchmen. Prosecution can follow later.

Military Planning

To maximize pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, China and the Syrian regime, the U.S. administration should order the Pentagon to present options for eventual military action alongside allies such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab nations. In the meantime, the U.S. and others should use all means short of military ones to obstruct Syrian forces, from jamming broadcast signals to cyberwarfare. The public warning on May 30 from Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, that the U.S. and others may soon circumvent Russia’s veto at the Security Council is welcome additional pressure. Another Libya or Kosovo-style action by U.S.-led forces is what Russia most wants to prevent in Syria.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Council, have made clear over the past few days their belief that Russia’s strategic interests in Syria should be safeguarded in a post-Assad world. This will be the cost of Russian cooperation. In his visits to Berlin and Paris over the weekend, Putin showed little sign of bending. He continued to insist on Russia’s neutrality in the dispute (despite its arms shipments to the Syrian government), and on the need for a patient negotiated solution (even though it’s clear that path is closed so long as Assad thinks he can survive militarily).

Putin has to decide as he begins his second, less popular tour as Russian president, whether being cast as defender of a Syrian regime that executes children advances his interests. Russia, after all, invaded its neighbor Georgia for allegedly committing far lesser crimes. Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s vice foreign minister, recently said his country might consider additional UN measures to strengthen the Annan initiative. Annan can redeem his mission, but only by acknowledging that his attempt to broker compromise between Assad and his opponents, always a long shot, has failed.

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