On My Mind: Dangerous impasses
The status quo in Iran and Syria is unacceptable and poses security threats beyond their respective borders.
Iran- P5+1 negotiations Photo: REUTERS/Government Spokesman Office/Handout
Impasses can engender complacency. That is precisely the danger
underlying the current international positioning regarding Syria and Iran.
President Bashar Assad’s dubious assent to a cease-fire and Iran’s talks with
world powers over its nuclear program are the latest tactic of these two allies
to resist mounting economic and diplomatic pressures.
Both regimes have
gained some reprieve. Further action on Syria awaits the outcome of the UN
observer mission. What more to do with Iran is on hold ahead of a third round of
talks with the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany, known as
the P5 + 1 group.
Yet, while world powers ponder what to do with these
two recalcitrant regimes, neither Damascus or Tehran is changing its behavior or
goals. In Syria, the costs in human suffering are rising far above the UN
estimate of 9,000 dead. The quest for Iranian nuclear weapons capability
advances as more centrifuges are installed to expand uranium
Assad’s ostensible acceptance of Kofi Annan’s cease-fire plan
did not come from the merciless Syrian dictator. It was announced by the
former UN secretary general’s spokesman. Yet, the plan’s doom was
foretold when Assad’s forces continued to pummel Syrian cities during Annan’s
visit to Damascus in March.
Now, with more than 250 UN monitors in Syria,
Assad has demonstrated again that he has no interest in ending his 15-month-old
brutally violent crackdown. The weekend massacre of more than 100, a third of
them children, in Houla, was a particularly bloody outrage. It also was a
reminder that Assad forces began assaulting the Syrian people by arresting and
torturing schoolchildren in March 2011.
As long as Assad continues to
ignore the cease-fire he allegedly accepted, the Annan plan will remain
fanciful. And the observers’ mission, born out of the failure of the UN
Security Council, due to Russia’s and China’s opposition, to adopt meaningful
action, will continue to be ineffectual. The UN should reconsider, admit
failure, remove the international monitors and regroup with stronger
Most disappointing for the Syrian opposition, international
pressure on Assad has been steadily weakening. Nowadays, there is barely
a mention of Assad’s need to step down, which was the call to action issued by
the US and the European Union in the summer and fall of 2011.
presence helps to legitimize Assad who continues living in an illusory world
where he promotes a view that foreign terrorists, not Syrians, are against his
regime. He expounded that view recently in a Russia TV interview. And, he now
blames the Houla massacre on insurgents.
SYRIAN ACCEPTANCE of the Annan
cease-fire came just a day before the representatives of Iran and the P5 plus
one gathered in Istanbul, for the first time in more than a year. Whether or not
that was a coincidence, Iranian-Syrian relations have tightened, with Tehran
providing support to the Assad regime.
Iran’s record of deceit is similar
to Syria. Tehran has ignored four UN Security Council resolutions, International
Atomic Energy Agency reports, and ever-tightening economic and financial
sanctions imposed by the US, EU and many other countries.
Istanbul on April 13, and again last week in Baghdad, the P5 + 1 group spent a
lot of time talking with Iran but no agreements were reached other than to
convene again in a few weeks in Moscow. On the positive side, the US, Britain,
France, Russia, China and Germany rejected Iran’s requests to weaken sanctions
without concrete, verifiable actions that Iran will abandon its quest for
nuclear weapons capability.
Skepticism is warranted regarding any assumed
sincerity by the Syrian or Iranian regimes in resolving their respective crises
in good faith. But they do have an advantage over an international community
that is not fully united, or may not have the staying power, in dealing with
The sad reality is these dual impasses, with their inherent
dangers, can continue as world powers are distracted by other, seemingly more
pressing matters. With US elections in less than five months, and the electorate
concerned about the economy, debate and discussions about crises in lands far
away will recede. Similarly, new governments emerging from elections in Europe
will be tempted to focus on the deepening economic recession, rather than
entertain new initiatives to deal with Iran and Syria.
The status quo in
Iran and Syria, however, is unacceptable and poses security threats beyond their
respective borders. The international community, led by the US, will need to
make clear that patience is not limitless. Firm deadlines to end Assad’s
crackdown in Syria and to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program are needed, with
credible warnings that compelling actions will be taken if they continue to defy
the international community.
In short, complacency is not an
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media