Is it Possible to Salvage the Faltering Syrian "Ceasefire"

04/25/2012 03:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2012

I lament the Obama administration's approach to the bloody slaughter in Syria. It has been deficient and often at cross purposes with our national security. An absence of imaginative, strategic diplomacy as the year-long crisis unfolded has caught the U.S. with dwindling options as the oxymoronic UN ceasefire collapses. Consequences abound as a result for U.S. interests across the region.

Instead of foreseeing the inevitable civil war and potential regional fallout from the growing humanitarian tragedy, the West Wing has issued firm instructions to any and all in the Obama administration to avoid any inadvertent mission creep that would push the U.S. into a Libyan-style involvement in Syria. A few secret communications devices here, a little intel and some overdue humanitarian aid there and the White House could claim that it is doing all it can under the circumstances, all the while doing everything possible behind the scenes to argue against its allies in the Arab League and Turkey from taking matters into their own hands. Between doing too little and doing too much one can drive a truck through.

I can understand that from the president's perspective, Syria is a swamp, pure and simple. But even if I were to agree that politics trumps national security in an election year, there is more we could do that we are not doing for fear of doing more than we should. With no stomach for another military adventure in the Middle East as the winds of war blow from Iran, Washington has been trying to conjure up the appearance of proactive engagement with many an accompanying expression of outrage over the magnitude of death and destruction the Assad regime has inflicted on its own people, under the fictitious guise of a UN orchestrated ceasefire.

From the time that Bashar Al Assad "agreed" to the United Nations ceasefire plan on April 10, and the subsequent deployment of a small contingent of UN ceasefire compliance monitors, Syrian security forces have never really retreated, but have brazenly cheated -- the tiny contingent of monitors being no deterrent to the ceaseless ceasefire slaughter.

Just yesterday, within minutes of a small UN observer contingent packing up after a brief visit to Hama's center, Syrian security forces executed 28-38 Syrian civilians right under the monitors' noses. Nothing more than a cat and mouse game, with Syrian civilians being the bait. Satellite imagery shows Syrian tanks and artillery firing at unarmed urban and village targets throughout Syria 24/7, and according to the UN's own top political officer, "human rights violations are still perpetrated with impunity." Over 200 more Syrians have been killed and countless more injured since the self-declared ceasefire. Assad's thugs have been shooting incessantly not only at cities and villages, but at fleeing civilians turned refugees desperately trying to cross into Turkey and Jordan.

An absence of strategic policy is not merely the providence of Washington. In a demonstration of comparable ho hum action the European Union decided to ban the export of luxury goods, such as yachts, wines, and luxury cars to Assad and his cronies. No doubt with Syria ablaze, the Assads will change course fearing their supply of Dom Perignon is running low.

Could another 300 UN monitors make a difference? Perhaps. The UN Security Council decided Saturday to up the contingent. Guess what? The Syrians have conveniently sent their UN observer bureaucrat visa issuers on an unscheduled extended leave. And even if the visas were quickly issued it would take months to dispatch all 300... all the while providing more time for Assad to kill. Most ironically, there has never, never been a UN peacekeeping force dispatched unarmed to monitor a peace that does not exist. The Russians saw to it that the monitors would not be able to defend themselves by compelling the UN to accept only an unarmed observer mission. Sitting ducks!

It would have been all well and good if Assad had abided by his own bargain. Had he ceased the rampant shelling of his cities and withdrawn his forces the U.S. could then continue to assert support for the Annan plan to end the violence and facilitate a dialogue between the regime and the Syrian opposition and that this was the best course. Hope springs eternal.

Fortunately, no one was that naïve in Washington. It does not take any rocket scientist to know that the Syrian regime would prevaricate and seize every conceivable chance to extinguish any ember of opposition by force even if it meant blatantly violating its own ceasefire terms. This regime, like many another dictatorship, has the survival instinct of a rodent, and will devour anything and anyone that tries to eliminate it.

Despite my evident despair that the Syrian people are being abandoned as Assad chalks up more and more casualties, there has been the occasional triumph. Ambassador Susan Rice -- our talented UN envoy -- has been a beacon of resolute determination as the current rotating president of the UN Security Council. Watching Amb. Rice painstakingly navigate the stormy diplomatic waters Russia and China have churned up to prevent unanimity of agreement illustrates how much Ms. Rice deserves the moniker as one of our nation's most eloquent, effective global voices for U.S. diplomacy. In spite of the challenges before her, she has tediously assembled a modicum of unity on Syria at Turtle Bay that has required all of the resourceful cunning of seasoned, skilled diplomat able to outfox and outmaneuver our Russian and Chinese adversaries. Her seriousness of purpose has surely given many Syrians some hope that Washington is indeed hearing their pleas.

That alone is encouraging and helpful. Ms. Rice is no stranger to humanitarian crises, and her work on Syria warrants commendation and recognition. She has few cards to play and she has played them with skill. Syria is the latest in a string of effective, behind the scenes accomplishments at the UN. Amb. Rice has been instrumental in keeping open the flicker of an agreement with Iran by helping to orchestrate the P5+1 negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program, and advocating creative sanctions on Iran to compel its regime to the table, just to name a few good deeds she has achieved along the way. Having so effectively performed her duties loyally at the UN throughout the past three years she has earned the right to be viewed as the leading candidate to succeed Mrs. Clinton in an Obama second term.

But even Ambassador Rice's commendable expertise cannot singlehandedly redeem a toothless UN Syrian ceasefire plan. Based on its own policy straightjacket, Syria's fate does not lie in the hands of Foggy Bottom, nor with Marine boots. If, as Amb. Rice warned, there are to be "consequences" if Assad kills the ceasefire, then what can be done short of western military intervention?

1. The disorganized, disunited Syrian opposition to Assad is a terrible calamity for Syria's civilians. Yet, they are no more feckless than the nascent Libyan opposition was at this juncture in the Libyan uprising. But we are setting the bar too high and expecting too much from them... as the White House likes to remind us Syria is not Libya. Yet, the U.S. seems to approach the disparate groups with a modicum of contempt rather than a heartfelt embrace. That prejudice against the Syrian National Council better change fast. Frustrated, these activists may turn more toward Islamic extremists for support because of western indifference, and there are reports that Al Qaeda is seizing that appetizing opening in Syria now... then what? We can and should do more to empower and legitimate the secular elements of the opposition as a reasonable alternative... nothing less than a Syrian government in exile should be its ultimate goal.

2. A torrent of Syrian refugees are fleeing into Turkey and Jordan. Why are we not doing more to alleviate their humanitarian suffering? Why are we not supporting a combined Turkish/Arab League plan to open up humanitarian corridors on the borders to relieve their plight? Cold feet is no answer to offering help even if the Russians and Chinese object. I dare the Russians to oppose efforts to facilitate humanitarian relief to refugees on both sides of these borders.

3. What is Plan B if the Annan UN plan self-destructs? Leave Assad to his own evil devices? Surely not. I have long argued (to slightly alter a phrase Mrs. Clinton used against Assad: "Reform or get out the way") that the U.S. either lead or get out the way and not undercut efforts by Turkey and the Arab League to take Assad down if that is their want. If Turkey and the Arab League want to provide funding and covert arms to the Free Syrian Army, then so be it. If the Turks and Saudis believe it is incumbent on them to take the lead on Syria... we can draw our own line in the sand, but stop meddling in their sandbox. I would rather see combined Turkish/Arab League intervention now, as messy and dangerous as that may be, then to face the prospect that Syria's extended agony deteriorates into another failed state struggle against Al Qaeda's and the Muslim Brotherhood's Syrian machinations.