With Syria peace plan in disarray, what next?

To the surprise of hardly anyone, the peace plan for Syria brokered by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan is collapsing in a hail of bullets and artillery. The question is whether anyone has the stomach for tougher action.

Despite low expectations that Annan’s plan for averting all-out civil war would have much influence with Syrian President Bashar Assad, it was the only one on offer — a necessary first step, according to veteran diplomats and security experts.

Its failure will force the international community to reconsider more aggressive options, such as imposing a no-fly zone or authorizing pinpoint airstrikes on Syrian artillery to end the year-old conflict, which has left an estimated 9,000 people dead. Washington and the United Nations have previously rejected such actions.

President Obama last month ruled out a unilateral U.S. military campaign in Syria, calling such an operation “much more complicated” than the NATO-led air war that helped Libyan rebels depose leader Moammar Kadafi. But some Persian Gulf monarchies have spoken favorably of arming the rebels, and experts say that pressure is likely to grow.

As the peace plan’s first deadline — for Assad’s forces to pull back and halt firing — came and went Tuesday, Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, said he still held out hope that the second deadline, two days later, for the rebels to lay down their arms would be met.

But as long as the regime in Damascus remains united and opposition forces are deeply divided and poorly armed, Assad will continue to use outside peace efforts to play for time and step up his suppression of revolt, said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy.

“Thus far he’s been able to maintain remarkable cohesion,” Ries said of Assad, whose inner circle has suffered few of the defections that steadily eroded Kadafi’s legitimacy in Libya.

Economic sanctions have hurt Syria but have not influenced Assad’s policies. Ries said the international community can weaken Assad’s control by sending signals to Syrian business leaders and economically successful government figures that they will want to be on the right side of history when the regime inevitably collapses.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton alluded to prospects of a palace coup in February when she said world diplomats “know from many sources that there are people around Assad who are beginning to hedge their bets.” She pointed to the actions of military leaders in Egypt and Tunisia last year that removed autocratic leaders who had condoned attacks on their own people.

“The Assad regime has been playing on the notion that we’re all in this together and there is no end game other than fighting in our fortress,” Ries said. “We need to work on that psychology” by assuring Assad lieutenants that their families would be safe from opposition retaliation and their fortunes protected from confiscation by the next leadership.

“We need to divide the regime security policy supporters and start them looking over their shoulder at each other and wondering who is going to break first,” said Ries, who served in Baghdad as the U.S. Embassy’s economic transition coordinator after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s capture, conviction and execution.

Syrian critics of the Assad regime were quick to say they never expected Annan’s plan to succeed.

“Assad is a master of diversion. He is well-practiced at navigating the loopholes in international and domestic law, and acutely aware of the opportunities presented by repetitive nonbinding statements,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, a self-styled government-in-exile based in Turkey.

Currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Ziadeh argues that the United Nations will never deter Assad without a credible threat of force.

Some security analysts believe the failure of the cease-fire is embarrassing to Russia, which twisted Assad’s arm to make him sign the Annan peace plan. Moscow may exert more pressure on Damascus to honor its pledges to stop firing heavy weapons and withdraw forces from the embattled cities where rebels hold sway.

After it was apparent the cease-fire was being ignored and Assad’s government was demanding new conditions for compliance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for “more active” Syrian efforts to end the bloodshed.

“We demand from our Syrian colleagues to rigorously implement the Annan plan,” Lavrov said as he met with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, in Moscow.

Former National Security Council defense strategy chief Kori Schake called the Russians’ response mere lip service.

“The Assad government is confident that no one is going to intervene and that time is on their side,” said Schake, now a professor of international security studies at West Point and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Although the U.S. and much of Europe are reluctant to engage in the kind of intervention that toppled Kadafi last year, regional players might be more willing to take tougher action, she said.

Recent gunfire from Syria that hit refugee areas along the border could bolster neighboring Turkey’s proposals for setting up safe corridors and buffer zones, Schake said.

“The behavior of the Syrian government is likely to loosen the spigots on the flow of arms to the rebels, whether from Saudi Arabia or other countries that would love to see the Syrian regime overthrown,” she said.

Few lessons can be drawn from other recent conflicts that have overthrown authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, Schake says, but Syrians have reached a milestone that marked the beginning of the end of repressive rule in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

“Once people lose their fear and take up arms against a government, it is doubtful that continued or increased repression can put that back in the box,” she said.