The Security Council's statement of unanimous support of former Secretary General Kofi Annan's efforts to deliver food to starving Syrians and to negotiate a cease-fire between the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces is reason for optimism.
Annan's efforts have the support of Russia and China, and he represents both the U.N. and the Arab League, giving him regional and international backing. He already has had several rounds of meetings with both Assad and the resistance. But don’t expect a settlement any time soon. The statement lacks the force of a "resolution," threatening only to consider undefined measures should Annan’s efforts fail. Experience with other dictatorships in the Middle East such as in Libya, Iran, and Iraq suggests that Assad will not respond to vague threats, but that he will continue using his military to destroy the opposition until deprived of that capability. The statement of intent needs teeth.
Years of sanctions and a no-fly zone didn’t depose Saddham Hussein; it took military intervention to do so. Similarly, Muammar Gaddafi remained in power until domestic rebels supported by NATO air power removed him. Numerous Security Council resolutions and international export and financial sanctions have neither motivated Iran to cease its nuclear development programs nor effected regime change. This pattern suggests that Assad may be no less resistant to change. He may be counting on his Russian allies, despite their talk of his "serious mistakes," to buy him time by accepting this statement so he can crush his domestic opposition.
Consider this: Syrian tanks don't stop. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has said Annan's mission is "Syria's last chance" and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned Syria, however, fighting continued in the city of Hama between Assad forces and the Free Syrian Army, with 12 reported deaths. Other military actions continue throughout Syria, such as in Hasrata, Irbin, and the suburbs of the capital Damascus itself.
The eyes of the international community and human rights organizations such as the British group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch haven’t been enough. The ball is in Russia and China’s court. They have consistently opposed taking sterner measures against their ally Assad, but Russia’s recent language suggests a possible change of heart. The real test of Russia’s and China’s true intentions isn’t their support of a toothless statement; it will occur should Assad stonewall Annan’s initiatives and continue his bellicose ways. Should measures against Syria like sanctions, asset seizures, and perhaps military intervention become necessary, the cooperation the Security Council gets from Russia and China will be a truer test their commitment to international cooperation.