Skip to main content

Q&A: What options are left in Syria?

May 14, 2012 -- Updated 1932 GMT (0332 HKT)
  • Syria has been mired in violence since March 2011
  • Questions surround the supposed cease-fire and the future of al-Assad
  • Signs show that everyday life for Syrians is becoming more difficult

(CNN) -- A U.N.-backed peace plan that included a cease-fire deal was to take effect April 12 in Syria. Since then, violence has continued: Car bombings, reports of snipers and more than 1,000 killed -- some of them executed and tortured to death, according to opposition activists.

Syria has been mired in violence since March 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad's forces began cracking down on anti-government demonstrators.

More: Where the conflict stands now

Is the regime of al-Assad showing signs of cracking? What are possible avenues to stop the violence?

CNN's Tim Lister weighs in on what options the U.N. and the United States might have, the likelihood of a long bloody war and what everyday life is like for Syrians now.

Unrest continues in strife-torn Syria
Will the violence ever end in Syria?
Who's really behind Syria's bombings?
Syrians take to the streets in protest

The Annan peace plan is widely viewed as failing. What are next steps for the U.N.? What likely options do the U.S. and the West have in all of this?

Diplomats acknowledge that Kofi Annan's six-point plan has reached a critical stage. He is due to return to Damascus soon to seek adherence to the cease-fire -- warning that without progress there is a real danger that what is now a budding insurgency will become a full-scale civil war.

The U.N. Security Council has authorized 300 unarmed observers for a large country where the pattern of violence is unpredictable and movement difficult. Analysts who recall the Bosnian experience say a mission even 10 times that size would struggle to make an impact. As of Friday, there were 145 on the ground.

The opposition has always doubted the plan's viability, saying it can only work if backed by the threat of force against the regime. At a demonstration in Idlib province Friday, one slogan read "Annan Enough"; another "U.N. Go Out."

The United States was never optimistic about the Annan plan either, but it was the "only game in town." Writing in Foreign Policy last week, Salman Shaikh, a former U.N. official who is director of the Brookings Doha Center, said the premise of the plan was fatally flawed as it was based on the "misguided belief that the Assad regime will ever stop using violence against domestic protesters and negotiate with them in good faith."

There's not much that the U.S. or European powers can do to change the equation in the short-term, short of decisive intervention to support the rebels. That is unlikely to happen, partly because both the European and U.S. electorates have grown weary of foreign entanglements.

But there are practical impediments, too. In Libya, most regime targets were close to the Mediterranean coast and within easy reach of NATO air bases in Italy. Even so, NATO warplanes flew some 21,000 missions over nearly six months to enforce the no-fly zone. While no match for the best that NATO members could summon, Syrian armed forces are much better equipped and commanded than anything Moammar Gadhafi could muster.

So is it long to be a long and bloody war of attrition?

The signs are ominous, and such a conflict might begin spreading beyond Syria's borders.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East, said last week that arms were flowing between Lebanon and Syria.

"What we see across the region is a dance of death at the brink of the abyss of war," he said -- one reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s that drew in surrounding states. The antagonisms in Syria between Sunni and Alawite communities are also played out in neighborhoods of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

Two Lebanese killed in clashes Sunday

Syria has accused the Gulf states, and specifically Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of arming the opposition, after a ship carrying weapons and ammunition of Libyan origin was seized in Lebanese waters last week. Saudi officials rejected the charge.

Some Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq have signaled their support for the uprising and have begun providing some weapons across the long and leaky border between the two countries. One sheik told CNN in March he had sent more than $300,000 and hundreds of guns across the border.

Only Russia and Iran have influence on the al-Assad regime and neither is inclined to back it into a corner. For now, the regime's existence is not threatened in a military sense. It will continue to pursue a crackdown rather than entertain real dialogue, as demanded by the U.N. Security Council, whose Resolution 2043 called for a "comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition."

Salman Shaikh says the regime has no incentive to stop the violence. "Doing so would hasten its demise, as Syrians took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest freely and assume control of large parts of the country," Shaikh wrote in FP.

Until recently, the capital Damascus had rarely seen the sort of violence that some parts of the country had experienced. The recent bomb attacks have changed that. How strong is the regime's support in the capital city? Is the regime showing signs of buckling?

The Syrian regime does not wear its heart on its sleeve. Internal machinations rarely spill into public view. The inner circle is tightly knit, based on family associations strengthened through marriage and patronage. There are signs that some among the elite have tried to move assets abroad, but there are no signs of panic.

With Russian and Iranian support (and weapons from the former and "technical help" from the latter) the regime retains an overwhelming advantage in the military sense. It has hundreds of battle tanks; the Free Syrian Army has AK-47s. But remember that U.S. forces in Iraq also had an overwhelming advantage in firepower. That did not prevent a devastating campaign of bombings by al Qaeda and Sunni nationalist insurgents.

A similar campaign appears to have begun in earnest in Damascus, targeting military and intelligence facilities. There were several bomb attacks just last week, and Syrian security claims to have foiled a suicide bombing Friday. The risk to the regime is that if it cannot provide security for its supporters, their backing will ebb.

Like other Syrian cities, the capital is made up of districts and suburbs that to one degree or another are pro- or anti-Assad. The town of Douma, close to Damascus, saw large anti-regime protests last year and for a while came under the control of the Free Syrian Army. The regime then flushed out the rebels and Douma is now an area under virtual siege. When U.N. observers visited last week, protestors paraded the wounded in front of their vehicles.

Increasingly, Damascus appears to reflect the sectarian divisions that have flared elsewhere -- in Homs for example. The Alawite and Christian minorities, generally speaking, continue to support the regime for fear of the alternative: Sunni rule that would persecute them. Sunni areas by contrast (and the Sunni make up more than half the population) are often the bedrock of opposition to the al-Assad regime.

What is the state of the opposition? Since the unrest began, we've heard that there wasn't a united opposition as was the case in places such as Libya. Has that changed?

In Libya, the opposition had a stronghold in Benghazi, with an airport and seaport to bring in supplies. It certainly had divisions, and still does months after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. But it was able to operate freely because it had a base inside the country, and from an early stage liaised with an international "Friends of Libya" group that brought together the United States, European countries, Turkey and the Gulf states.

The Syrian opposition has been divided from the outset. An unwieldy Syrian National Council is based in Turkey, with Islamists and liberals having as much in common with each other as they do with the Assad regime. Western diplomats have long bemoaned the lack of purpose and unity in the SNC. Inside Syria it has no traction with influential clans and families.

Its leader, Burhan Ghalioun, is a Paris-based professor who has struggled to unify the 270-member council. In March, about 20 prominent members of the SNC decided to form the Syrian Patriotic Group with the aim of building closer ties to the rebels inside Syria.

Within Syria, Local Coordination Committees and the Free Syrian Army comprise the regime's real opponents, but there are tribes and minorities such as the Kurds, who are also influential. The FSA has little time for the exiled political leadership, rebuffing its recent attempts to coordinate military operations and funding.

In Libya, the rebels soon received anti-tank weapons and other hardware from the Gulf states, as well as getting protection from the no fly-zone enforced by NATO. The Syrian rebels have neither; even basic weaponry is hugely expensive. That also feeds division, because the Islamist factions tend to have more money for buying weapons.

What is everyday life like for Syrians?

All the signs are that it's becoming more and more difficult, with basics in short supply and many people in areas where there has been violence relying on charities and the Red Crescent for food and medical care. Inflation is rampant.

Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma says a lack of finance means "authorities can no longer provide the basic commodities that have long been the central job of the government: providing grain and fuel."

The World Food Program said recently that nearly 1.5 million Syrians were deprived of basic supplies. And the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization reported in March that Syria's domestic grain output fell 10% in 2011 and that it would need to raise its imports by about one-third this year. But a shortage of hard currency may make that difficult.

There are electricity shortages in many areas as fuel-oil becomes more scarce.

And the fabric of society is fraying in other ways. Aleppo University has closed its doors after security forces raided the campus in response to student protests. It's unclear whether it will re-open for final exams this month.

Landis writes on the Syria Comment blog: "It will only be the first of the universities to close. Most are trying to limp to the end of the academic year, but they will probably not be able to open in the fall. Students are becoming mobilized and radicalized."

Then there is the growing tide of internally displaced people who have fled their homes and the exodus of refugees now in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The U.N. estimates that altogether one million Syrians are in need of assistance within the country, but there's been little progress in getting humanitarian aid to them, one of the provisions in Annan's plan.

Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2119 GMT (0519 HKT)
What caught our experts' ears was as much about what he didn't address as much as what he did.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1019 GMT (1819 HKT)
The three-year war in Syria has claimed 162,402 lives, an opposition group said Monday, as the raging conflict shows no signs of abating.
May 31, 2014 -- Updated 0141 GMT (0941 HKT)
Official: The U.S. believes a jihadi featured in a suicide bombing video in Syria is Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha who grew up in Florida.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
For the first time, Britain has convicted someone of a terrorism offense related to the Syrian civil war.