Western and Gulf powers share at least one mindset with their foe, Bashar al-Assad, as the minutes tick down to 6 A.M. Thursday. Trapped in a situation with few alternatives, each side of the power equation is fighting to keep Kofi Annan's ceasefire initiative alive after the plan died a brutal death. Hoping to conceal the remaining cards in Washington's hand despite a new spike in casualties, the Obama administration refuses to address the prospect of failed diplomacy until Thursday's "official" deadline passes.
That vacuum has forced Syria's opposition to fill it immediately.
Ascertaining the political position of Syria's National Council (SNC) is generally obstructed by two factors: internal divides over the level of foreign intervention and the protocol of international blocs. On top of a schism with the National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change (NCC), which has coordinate with Moscow to oppose foreign intervention, the internationalized SNC has also battled local perceptions of lagging behind al-Assad's assaults. The SNC is thus trapped between fears of foreign occupation and civil war - or, most likely, a combination of the two - and forced to navigate between potential extremes. This diplomatic obligation is multiplied by the need to cooperate with the United Nations and Arab League as they attempt to negotiate a ceasefire with al-Assad's regime.
"We continue to consult with the Annan mission and seek some form, any form of compliance, or any means to get the regime to comply with the ceasefire," SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani said on Tuesday. “In spite of the difficulties that we are facing... we think that the Annan mission can continue to work with the regime and with international powers to get a U.N. mission, a monitoring mission of observers, on the ground."
Yet the resulting flow of hedged rhetoric isn't overly difficult to interpret. While Burhan Ghalioun keeps his hand outstretched just in case al-Assad defies his recent history and ceases fire, the SNC chairman has criticized Annan's plan and demands that the international community stop "flirting with the regime." Ghalioun used Istanbul's "Friends of Syria" conference to advocate the arming of Syria's opposition, and Kodmani acknowledged that al-Assad has no visible plans to halt his crackdown. Another member, Obeida Nahas, struck down the possibility of a "national dialogue" with the regime, as stipulated by Annan's plan. The SNC will participate in a dialogue with all of Syria's ethnicities and religions, "but the leaders of this regime have to go."
Just as the SNC is obligated to suspend its doubts and cooperate with Annan's plan, the group must employ a similar policy towards Moscow and Beijing. The foreign pillars of al-Assad's regime wouldn't even endorse Annan's defanged plan without a congenial opposition, since both powers still expect to maintain influence in the event of a new government. Kodmani held out the faintest hope that Moscow and China would modify their position ahead of the UNSC's next resolution, "because every attempt at a solution that requires the cooperation of the regime is leading to hundreds and thousands more deaths." However Moscow in particular has employed deceptive rhetoric to keep Western powers guessing on Russia's end game - a pro-regime strategy.
After lamenting that al-Assad "could have done more," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said "The United States and other countries that have stable contacts with various Syrian opposition groups should not blame everything on Russia and China, but use their own influence to force everyone to stop firing in each other."
Kodmani says that if and when Annan's mission does fails, the SNC and Free Syrian Army (FSA) expect the UNSC to approve military action by invoking Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. Today Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist with connections in Washington, offered an blueprint of this plan to Fox News. Supposedly authorized to speak on behalf of multiple opposition groups, Abdulhamid released their own six-point plan that begins with a call to arm Syrian insurgents. The opposition essentially argues that diplomacy cannot succeed without the application of force; in conjunction with foreign arms, air support is envisioned as the tool to open a safe haven into Turkey. Finally, the opposition requests an international peacekeeping force to maintain security in "liberated territories."
When applied collectively and in unison with diplomatic pressure, the SNC believes that their plan can eventually topple al-Assad's regime. These terms may sound unrealistic at the moment or even in the long-term (especially inserting UN peacekeepers into Homs or Damascus), but no less realistic than futile negotiations with a bloodthirsty dictatorship.