Today is a very important day for international diplomacy on the Syria crisis. Here’s why.
1) There was word late yesterday of a new massacre near the city of Hama. Monitoring groups claim that over 100 people were killed in the town of al-Kubir, “The charred bodies of women and children lay scattered in houses across farmland in central Syria after a brutal massacre allegedly carried out by pro-regime militiamen.” The modus operandi seems very similar to the Houla massacre two weeks ago. Syrian forces reportedly shelled the town, after which pro-regime militia known as the al Shabiha came in to finish the job. UN monitors, whose job it is to monitor and report on incidents like this, have so far been unable to reach al Kubeir. They are being physically blocked by Syrian government from reaching the site of the alleged massacre, and came under small arms fire when they tried to do so.
2) Hillary Clinton and her counterparts from 16 countries are meeting in Istanbul as part of the Friends of the Syrian people group to discuss the crisis. They are planning a common diplomatic strategy. This includes, for the first time, open discussion of pursuing a Chapter VII resolution, which in diplospeak means sanctions or even intervention. The latter is almost certainly off the table, so really we are talking about personal asset freezes and travel bans for members of the Assad inner circle. Yesterday, the US Treasury Secretary raised the prospect of multi-lateral sanctions, and in the Istanbul meeting those are being hammered out, presumably so the group can present a unified front to Russia and China (whose acquiescence is required for sanctions to pass).
3) Kofi Annan is briefing the Security Council in New York. The Six Point Plan that he helped negotiate, which Damascus signed onto, and which the Security Council endorsed, is in complete tatters. The al Kubeir massacre is the most recent testament to the current weakness of this plan. It is being ignored. In the face of the apparent disintegration of the Six Point Plan, Annan is expected to outline a new diplomatic strategy. Annan would form a “Contact Group” that would include all members of the Security Council, plus Saudi Arabia, Iran and all of Syria’s neighbors to shepherd Syria’s political transition. The main purpose of this plan would be to secure Russia’s endorsement of a political transition in Syria away from Bashar al Assad. To use an American sports metaphor, this is a Hail Mary Pass–but may be the last best option for a diplomatic solution to this crisis.