UNITED NATIONS:The self-congratulatory speeches that rang inside the UN Security Council chamber Friday celebrated the fact that, after 4½ years, bitterly divided world powers had finally agreed on a peace plan for Syria.In the interim, though, 250,000 Syrians died, an exodus of 4 million refugees swept across the Middle East and Europe, and one of the most brutal terrorist organizations in modern times, the Islamic State, dominated and decimated once-great Syrian cities.It was not the first time an organization born out of the calamities of two world wars had sat in silence as a new horror unfolded.There was the Rwanda genocide in 1994, followed by the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995, despite its designation as a United Nations “safe area.” Both were later judged spectacular failures to act; both led to vows that the world would never again sit back and watch.But in Syria, the brutality could be seen daily on YouTube, and the Security Council was frozen in a standoff reminiscent of the Cold War, described by many, both inside and outside the council’s chambers, as a stain on its reputation.
Russia vetoed four resolutions, hoping to protect President Bashar Assad of Syria, its only real ally in the Middle East, and host to its one major naval facility outside of Russian territory.The Obama administration had insisted that Assad must leave power before anything else would happen, and refused to allow Iran, the other big player in Syria, to participate in talks in Geneva — two positions it reversed this year.Only when refugees began arriving by the tens of thousands on Europe’s shores, leading to fears that the European Union could be torn apart, and when a Russian plane was shot out of the sky by Turkey, did the war reach a tipping point that allowed Moscow and Washington to act.
It remains to be seen whether the plan will bring any relief to the people of Syria, through the actions of United States and Russia, principally, but also Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, which have been accused of fueling the war.
There are a few reasons for hope, but the potential pitfalls ahead are many. Here are a few:
Q: How will a cease-fire work?
A: The United Nations has cited some local truces that Syrian warring parties, with help from outside backers like Iran and Qatar, have negotiated on the ground. They are far from ideal. Some have involved a transfer of populations based on which sect they belong to — Shi’ites to one enclave, Sunnis to another — while other cease-fires have been struck only after civilians in besieged areas were near starvation.
Q: Who would monitor a cease-fire?
A: Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, is due to submit to the Security Council a list of options for monitoring the cease-fire within a month. The idea of sending UN peacekeepers seems unlikely — there are no clear cease-fire lines, and they would become targets.
Other options could include a bloc of countries sending military observers endorsed by the United Nations, though they would have to come from countries seen as having no direct stake in the conflict.
Alternatively, cease-fire violations could be monitored by warring parties or civilian organizations, and reported to the United Nations. Still to be considered is the role of technology, such as unmanned aerial surveillance craft — drones — to keep an eye on movements on the ground.
Q: Who will defeat the Islamic State on the ground?
A: No world nation, certainly no member of the Security Council, has expressed any enthusiasm for sending soldiers to defeat the Islamic State or the Al Qaeda affiliate known as the Al Nusra Front. Kurdish forces have been on the front lines, but they have also been under fire from Turkey.
Yet no one has come up with an alternative that seems up to the job. “This is the hole in the plan,” one US military official said recently. “Everyone agrees you can’t do this from the air, and no one can explain who makes up the ground force.”
Q: How do you persuade the opposition to fight the Islamic State if there is no guarantee Bashar Assad will leave?
A: The regional powers, in particular Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will have to be assured that world nations, particularly the West, will not let up the pressure to negotiate his exit.
Q: Will the peace hold?
A: Even if a political transition succeeds over the next two years, as envisioned by the peace plan, American, European, and Russian officials fear the prospect of another weak state in a region rived by sectarian divide and fertile for the expansion of terrorist organizations. They cite the examples of Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.
Q: What role will Iran play?
A: Few believe Iran will give up its support of Hezbollah, or work behind the scenes to control the government in Syria. While the Russians may give up on Assad, who they view as damaged goods, the Iranians seem unwilling. When he was in New York earlier this year, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran asked a group of visitors who else would run the country — and the list of names put forth, he suggested, was not credible.