Q&A: What options are left in Syria?

Story highlights

  • Syria has been mired in violence since March 2011
  • Kofi Annan's resignation has left many debating diplomacy options
  • Some ask if now is the time for the U.S. to arm the rebels

The violence drags on in Aleppo and Damascus, Kofi Annan resigns as U.N. special envoy and U.S. officials reveal that President Obama had signed a secret order allowing clandestine support.

What's next for the country mired in violence since March 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad's forces began cracking down on anti-government demonstrators?

CNN's Tim Lister weighs in on what options the United States might have, where the U.N. goes from here and what are likely scenarios for the battle for Syria's two biggest cities.

Kofi Annan resigned as U.N. special envoy, and for months U.N. plans have failed to be implemented and Russia and China have vetoed any resolutions. Does the U.N. have any viable next steps?

Syria has not been the United Nations' finest hour, to put it mildly. Ultimately, the writing was on the wall for U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan -- he simply couldn't see any future for dialogue without the concerted backing of the international community.

"Facts on the ground," as they say, have made the U.N. observers in Syria redundant. The numbers were never enough anyway, and most of the time they relied on the Syrian authorities for escorts and protection. But their failure was a function of the paralysis within the U.N. Security Council.

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    China and Russia objected to tougher resolutions on Syria that might have given the six-point plan (proposed by Annan and endorsed by the council) and a negotiated transition some slim chance of success. They have vetoed three resolutions that would have racheted up the pressure on the regime. When the last one was voted down, on July 19, the White House acknowledged it was pointless "extending a mission where you send unarmed U.N. employees into Syria to try to observe the brutality of the Assad regime when there is ... no mechanism within the resolution to create consequences for the regime for failing to live up to its obligations and its commitments under the Annan plan."

    Further, the metamorphosis of the conflict -- from the regime targeting protestors to a full-fledged guerrilla war -- made Annan's job impossible. As he said in his resignation statement: "The increasing militarization on the ground and the clear lack of unity in the Security Council have fundamentally changed the circumstances for the effective exercise of my role." But he also took a swipe at the Security Council that was very blunt for someone who used to lead the U.N. "At a time when we need -- when the Syrian people desperately need -- action there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council," he said.

    Annan's statement drove a stake through the already failing heart of international diplomacy on Syria. Will anyone else pick up the poisoned chalice? Annan said wryly on Thursday: "The world is full of crazy people like me, so don't be surprised if someone else decides to take it on."

    In the meantime, we can now expect the many protagonists to resort to other means to get their way in the political sandbox that Syria has become.

    More: Is Syria diplomacy dead?

    According to U.S. officials, President Obama has signed a secret order that allows for clandestine support for Syrian rebels by the CIA and other agencies. Does this mean that the U.S. arming the rebels is looking more likely?

    Not necessarily. The intelligence "finding" permits a range of support to the rebels, which could include technical advice, help with building communications infrastructure and improving command and control (such as how to establish reliable supply lines) -- essentially trying to make the Free Syrian Army a more effective fighting force. The rebels' growing arsenal appears to be coming largely from supporters in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia and especially Qatar have long been more favorable to arming them than has the U.S. and its Western partners, though some analysts say it seems likely the Gulf states are providing cash for the rebels rather than supplying weapons directly.

    So far the FSA has not acquired heavy armor (unless you count a captured tank seen in a video uploaded from Aleppo on Thursday). Most of the weapons are being smuggled in from Turkey, and some via northern Lebanon; the anecdotal evidence from videos of the fighting suggest there are more guns and more ammunition in the hands of the rebels and fewer ancient hunting rifles. Rocket-propelled grenades are also more in evidence.

    More: Syria rebels, from rocks to RPGs

    The rebels certainly need support from outside. They are often characterized as without leadership or organization. But in recent weeks they have shown themselves capable of taking and holding ground in and around Syria's most important cities -- Aleppo and Damascus. The offensive in Damascus was complex and coordinated, with fighters arriving from other parts of the country, and it took a major counterattack for the regime to reassert control over the capital.

    The rebels are also taking advantage of the battlefields that favor insurgency, such as the narrow alleys of central Aleppo, where a few dozen fighters can tie down much larger concentrations of Syrian forces. Whether smarter tactics are down to better advice and more intelligence about the enemy's movements is an intriguing question.

    There may well be an advantage to the United States in the closer relationship with the rebels stemming from this secret order. It may help U.S. intelligence get to know more about who the rebels are, the strength of jihadist factions that have also entered the fray, and a better sense of the evolving battlefield. A closer relationship may also help to influence the rebels' behavior and to find out more about the status and security of Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons.

    It's likely that clandestine support is being channeled through hubs like Antakya in southern Turkey, which has become a sort of base camp for the FSA.

    What likely options do the U.S. and the West have in all of this?

    Nothing that would make a decisive difference, but tools that can tip the balance marginally in the favor of al-Assad's opponents. Western states can continue to keep up the economic and financial pressure on the regime, with a range of sanctions against the al-Assad clan and others closely associated with them -- as well as an embargo on Syrian oil exports. The Syrian economy is in a dreadful state, and according to market analysts, the government is having difficulty financing imports of staples such as grain as its reserves of foreign exchange dwindle. Ultimately, that works against the regime (even though Syria's 22 million people bear the brunt of the suffering) because it has long relied on the support of powerful merchant families, and desperation has a habit of bringing people off the fence.

    Further logistical support should enhance the Free Syrian Army's ability to sustain its guerrilla war, though that won't happen overnight. The United States and its allies in the Action Group for Syria can continue to badger the Syrian National Council to get its act together and improve its coordination with groups inside Syria -- and try at least to monitor the influence of Islamist and/or jihadist groups within the opposition (on which more below).

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    Beyond that, the options are few. But one thing the international community needs to do to show that it's not abandoning the Syrian people is step up aid to deal with a refugee crisis and the prospect of serious food shortages inside Syria. The violence has severely affected this year's harvest, and the World Food Programme estimates that 1 million Syrians need urgent and immediate food aid. About 80% of Syrians living outside the major cities rely on farming for their livelihood.

    On Thursday, the U.S. increased humanitarian assistance by another $12 million; much more will be needed. The U.N. has doubled its estimate of the number of Syrians likely to flee the country this year to nearly 200,000.

    Some have argued that doing less is more in the long run, and that the "we must act" lobby is a reflex stemming from frustration rather than a cool appraisal of what's feasible.

    The concept of a no-fly zone -- long bandied about -- would be difficult to implement given the regime's still effective air defenses. In Libya, enforcing the no-fly zone along the coastal strip where much of the fighting took place was relatively straightforward for NATO -- compared to the many urban and rural battlefields that dot Syria. And in Libya, the rebels had a whole city, Benghazi, with airport and seaport as a base to receive arms and organize. Even so, it took some 17,000 NATO air sorties and a lot of help from Arab states such as Qatar before Moammar Gadhafi was beaten.

    More: Why Syria isn't Libya

    Even now, the Syrian military machine -- and the cohesion of the leadership in Damascus -- is far more potent than Gadhafi's mercurial regime. After the devastating bomb that killed the defense minister and others on July 18, replacements were announced within hours.

    Writing in Foreign Policy this week, Aaron David Miller argues there is no alternative to allowing the situation in Syria to play itself out. "Nobody has made a compelling case that half-measures -- more arms for the opposition, no-fly zones, safe havens -- will bring the Assads down. To give these ideas the old college try because we feel compelled to 'do something' isn't a strategy; it's a wing and a prayer." Instead, a coalition of the willing should begin preparing for the massive task of stabilizing and rebuilding Syria once al-Assad is gone, he argues.

    That now seems the U.S. approach. The acting deputy spokeman at the U.S. State Department, Patrick Ventrell, said Thursday: "Our analysis is that the regime's capabilities are being weakened, that the Syrian army's soldiers are becoming demoralized, and that the opposition is gaining ground. So in effect, our strategy is having an impact."

    There is no desire in the Obama administration to "further militarize the conflict," though it's content to see the FSA receive weapons from others.

    The violence has reached Syria's two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus. Are decisive victories in these cities by either side enough to end the civil war?

    Decisive victories do not seem imminent. In the last month, the regime has suffered some serious setbacks, most notably the bombing in Damascus last month that killed four of al-Assad's inner circle, including his brother-in-law. But al-Assad still has an overwhelming superiority in heavy weapons, with helicopters and fixed-wing bombers, a huge arsenal of battle tanks and thousands of artillery pieces. The Syrian army was built to fight Israel; that's why it has so much firepower. But it was not designed (in terms of doctrine, equipment or training) for battling an insurgency that is mobile and increasingly adept at urban warfare.

    The regime has a stark choice: pulverize Syria's cities and in the process destroy what's left of the economy and provoke a massive humanitarian crisis. Or continue a long war of attrition that's clearly taking a toll on its elite divisions.

    That's why the shabiha, pro-government militia that don't wear uniforms and often has have knowledge, remain an important pillar of the regime's support. The summary execution of several shabiha in Aleppo this week shows in equal measure how much the shabiha are reviled, and the risk of the conflict becoming unconfined bloodletting without regard for the rules of war.

    More: What we know, and don't, about Syria

    The great unknown is at what point fissures within the regime might become a factor, when defections might reach a critical mass and when elite military units begin to collapse after 18 months of ceaseless action. As one analyst put it, no one wants to be the "last man out." Of al-Assad's thoughts, little is known. His last major public appearance was in June; a couple of TV clips since have shown him meeting with officials but saying nothing.

    Observers are divided on just how resilient the 46-year-old president is. Some doubt he is a "dead-ender" in the style of Gadhafi. With a young family and -- it is rumored -- substantial assets abroad, they say he seems an unlikely candidate for the Damascus bunker. Others argue that he has shown a gritty obstinacy in facing down the international community and ordering massive military operations against opposition strongholds, even as the rebels have progressed from the occasional street battle to a presence in much of the country.

    For now the rebels have established control of more remote areas -- in Idlib province for example in northwest Syria and along the border with Turkey. They have toeholds in urban areas, but as was shown in neighborhoods of Damascus last month, the regime can still flush them out with sufficient manpower.