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Syria Cease-fire Poses New International Challenges

Al Pessin

The Syrian government’s decision to partially implement the peace plan endorsed by the Arab League and the United Nations creates new challenges for world and regional leaders.

The cease-fire in Syria largely took hold last Thursday, but only briefly.  Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have resumed some shelling of opposition strongholds, and the government’s tanks and troops did not pull out of cities and towns, as the plan requires.  United Nations truce observers have begun to arrive in Syria.  But Western officials, and analysts like Nyresa Cama of the Janusian Risk Advisory Group, do not expect the relative calm to last very long.

“I don’t think there’s really any strong evidence that we can point to that the Assad government has been convinced to go down a different route than the one it’s been going down," Cama said.

And that creates some interesting questions for the international community.

“I think the West really has to make up its mind what level of intervention it wants to stage in Syria, if any,” Cama said.

Western governments say they have no intention of intervening, even if the cease-fire breaks down.  But some Arab governments, notably Saudi Arabia, want to arm the Syrian opposition.  
The Saudis have become leading opponents of President Assad, in part to appear to champion a popular rebellion, says retired British diplomat Michael Williams.  And he says the Saudis also want to put pressure on their chief rival, Iran, a key Assad ally.

"If the Assad regime was to fall, this would be an enormous blow for Iran.  And Saudi Arabia feels very strongly now that this is the time for change,” Williams said.

The other key countries in the Syrian conflict are China and Russia, which have vetoed two resolutions at the United Nations Security Council.  

China generally opposes international intervention as a matter of principle.

Russia particularly needs Syria, its closest friend in the Middle East and home to its only naval facility outside the former Soviet Union.

Experts say if the Assad government abandons the peace plan and ends the ceasefire, China and especially Russia will come under pressure to change their policies.

“If it violates the ceasefire, that puts Russia in a difficult position and it leaves the U.S. and its allies on the Security Council in a much stronger position to try and push through the type of Security Council resolution we were looking at a few months ago,” Cama said.

But Michael Williams believes China may come around to the Western position, because it needs to worry about its relationships throughout the Middle East.

“I think a key target of Western diplomacy, frankly, should be to try and peel away China from its agreement with Russia on Syria,” Williams said.

Experts have little confidence the Arab League and United Nations peace plan, initiated by special envoy Kofi Annan, will actually result in a diplomatic solution.  

But humanitarian officials are hoping to use any break in fighting to deliver aid to hard hit civilian areas.  And experts say changes in the international equation could produce enough pressure, over some additional months, to convince President Assad to resign.

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