Having to deal with the 'now what?' on Syria
April 10th, 2012
10:55 PM ET

Having to deal with the 'now what?' on Syria

By Jill Dougherty

No one in the Obama administration seems ready to say out loud that the Syria peace plan has failed, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came close.

Asked whether the six-point plan on which U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan supposedly won agreement from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is failing, Clinton told reporters the plan has not achieved a main goal of stopping the attacks.

"In fact, the violence has only got worse over this last week" she told reporters at the State Department.

"Just yesterday Syrian forces fired on refugees fleeing across the boarder into Turkey," she said. "They then lit fires to their own forests to try to flush out opposition fighters and they fired across the boarder into Lebanon."

The final deadline for ceasing hostilities is Thursday, but no one in the administration believes that will happen.

Admitting the plan is a bust, however, would raise the uncomfortable question of what's next. Trying to answer that, several Syria experts told CNN, raises some tough choices for the Obama administration.

One source close to the administration's deliberations on Syria described the mood among officials as "frustration."

"I don't think there's a dramatic next step'" this source said. The United States already is providing "nonlethal" assistance - things such as night vision goggles and communications equipment - to the opposition and is trying to help meld the opposition into a coherent group.

"The harder choices are: Do we get involved or not, and under what circumstances?" this source said. "I don't think that's immediately on the horizon."

One Syrian expert, Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN, "There are an awful lot of ways that Syria could turn really, really horrible."

He said the administration can't look for a quick fix.

"If the goal is not to just make something better this week in Syria, the goal is how, when you come out of this period, do you try to lay the groundwork for Syria to be a better place in three years than it is now?"

The administration, Alterman said, "is very cautious to get into something without having any idea of how they're getting out of it, because they're in the process of winding down very open engagements - a very open engagement in Afghanistan, a very open engagement in Iraq."

"I think they are cognizant of the limits of our control. ... We don't control it, it's true. But I think the criticism that comes out is that we're not using the influence we have as effectively as we might."

Steven Heydemann of the U.S. Institute of Peace said that publicly acknowledging the Annan mission has failed would be difficult "because the immediate question is, then what?"

"There are answers that would move the administration in a direction that it's not yet prepared to go," he said.

Heydemann said a salient question is, "Does the very clear failure of the Annan initiative lead to further action on the U.N. Security Council and if so, what kind?"

"I would suspect that would turn out to be a nonstarter. But I also suspect that because the political difficulties and the diplomatic challenges associated with shifting into a Plan B or a Plan C are so high that the U.S. will do everything it can to continue to use the Security Council."

One option for the United States, he said, is to find appropriate diplomatic ways to push Saudi Arabia and Qatar to follow through on their promises to get weapons into the hands of the opposition.

Another is to continue to work with the Turkish government on the issue of safe havens for Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting. The Turks have been willing to discuss the idea, Heydemann said, but they have not been prepared to take a decision.

"In a way it's understandable," he said, "because establishing safe zones represents a form of military intervention. And so the Turks recognize how big a step that is."

"If we were prepared to push the Turks to make that a much higher priority in their own planning, we could find ourselves moving closer to that kind of a move and those may well turn out to be a more likely option than anything involving the U.N."

Heydemann and other Syria experts agree: None of these options offer a quick end to the violence and killing. Missions such as Kofi Annan's "continue to deal with the symptoms of the disease," said the source speaking on background, "but this plan doesn't deal with the political disease itself: The regime and its brutal way it rules the country."

"This thing could go on for a while."

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