An urgent need for action on Syria

June 29, 2012

IN A RARE INTERVIEW broadcast this week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Iranian television to “annihilate terrorists” and told the rest of the world to get lost. “No one knows how to solve Syria’s problems as well as we do,” he said. But judging by the protests Friday near the presidential palace in Damascus, where people chanted, “We will no longer kneel to anyone but God,” and by the spiraling violence around the country, Mr. Assad is not solving anything. As he correctly noted on Wednesday, Syria is in a “state of war.”

While Syrian forces shell towns and villages, and resistance forces battle government troops, the rest of the world is preparing to contribute more talk. Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, says he is forming an “action” group that will meet in Geneva on Saturday, including diplomats from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. The meeting comes after Mr. Annan’s earlier peace mission fell apart.

If the participants in Geneva do find a way to take “action,” we would find it encouraging. But signs indicate that they remain stuck in irrelevancy. In the run-up to the Geneva meeting, they quarreled about whether Iran or Saudi Arabia should be at the table. Neither will be. Mr. Annan circulated a preliminary document that implied that Mr. Assad would have to step down in any Syrian transition, as the United States and others have sought, but it was met with opposition from Russia, Syria’s ardent backer. It looks like the “action” group is coming to Geneva empty-handed. Let’s hope we are wrong.

What is clear is the deteriorating situation. Syrian opposition groups reported Friday that the previous day’s death toll was 190, the worst of any single day this year. While the estimates are not easily verified, it appears the lion’s share of the deaths occurred in Douma, a suburb northwest of Damascus that has resisted the Assad regime and was subject to more shelling by government forces Friday. Tensions with Turkey have flared after the Syrian downing of a Turkish fighter jet, and Syrian defectors continue to abandon the military, including an air force pilot who flew his MiG to Jordan.

When they meet in Geneva, diplomats should ponder what violent twist might come next week or next month if Mr. Assad remains in power. Which suburb like Douma will be under the shells? Which busy market will be targeted for another bomb, like the one that detonated in Damascus this week near the main justice complex? Can the war within Syria remain within? The diplomats need to go beyond the jabberwocky so far and join forces behind a real endgame for Mr. Assad and this spreading war.

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