The April 10 deadline for Syrian forces to withdraw from major cities set by Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy for Syria, appears to have come and gone with little change on the ground. Thursday’s deadline for a complete ceasefire looks set to pass as well. For now, Annan rightly insists the plan is still on the table. But Syria’s last best chance for a diplomatic solution is dying.

If Annan’s plan is likely dead, the coroner won’t pronounce it for a few more days. Deadlines like these are sometimes rescued in diplomatic overtime. Russian prestige is now on the line, and we may see a last-ditch effort from Moscow to get Assad to comply. The upcoming G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Washington on April 12, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will confront an irate Hillary Clinton, might provide an opportunity to break the deadlock between the United States and Russia.

There’s precedent for this: When the U.N. Security Council was stalemated in 1999 over Kosovo, it was a G8 meeting that provided the diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Russia. There will be ferocious diplomacy to that end in the next few days, as well as diplomacy aimed at seeing whether Beijing can be persuaded to play ball — or at least not block Security Council action — leaving Moscow more isolated. We could still see the Security Council agreeing to a new resolution, calling on President Bashar al-Assad to implement Annan’s plan and agreeing to deploy a monitoring force. Still, those hoping for a diplomatic solution to this mess shouldn’t fool themselves — the odds are low.

But the odds were always low. Several days ago, commentators were busily rehearsing the line that Annan was naive to be “shocked” that Assad broke his promises. Casablanca-style “shocked, shocked” is more like it: Annan is nobody’s fool. He has long experience with Assad, and knew full well the odds lay against his following through on any diplomatic solution. The former U.N. secretary-general was not counting on Assad’s good will, but on producing a plan that could unify the Security Council, shifting Assad’s international calculus. It still might. It probably won’t.

Annan and current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were right to try. Diplomacy sometimes succeeds in unlikely circumstances, and could have forestalled the inevitable deterioration that will now follow. And if diplomacy irrevocably fails in the next few days, then no one can credibly argue that all other options were not exhausted before more forceful measures are used.

What might those measures be?

There will be new calls for the use of force to achieve regime change. The strong moral pros and substantial operational cons of that option have been fully debated in this magazine and elsewhere. At this stage, there is no sign that the United States, NATO, Turkey, or anyone else is contemplating a full-blown intervention. Indeed, the White House has reportedly signaled to the Syrian opposition recently that it is not prepared to escalate its conflict with the Assad regime.

A more likely scenario was spelled out by Foreign Policy’s own James Traub. His argument is that the least bad option may be one of arming the rebels, supporting them politically if they accept certain basic standards of conduct, and engaging in a slow, drawn-out process of bleeding the regime — what he calls a “neo-mujahideen” strategy. That phrase deliberately invokes the risks as well as potential gains of such an approach, and there should be no doubting that it carries the danger of major escalation and sectarian clashes.

There is a further option that has not been exhaustively examined: that of a multi-national stabilization force. A stabilization force is neither an intervention nor a peacekeeping tool: It has the military capacity of the former, but the intentions of the latter. It does not aim for regime change, but to stop a particular bout of killing and to prevent more. The deployment of such a force helped stop widespread slaughter by the Indonesian army in East Timor in 1999.
It’s neither an easy option nor a silver bullet. Memories of the disastrous U.S.-led multinational force in Beirut in 1982, which ended ignominiously after bombings of the U.S. and French barracks killed 241 American servicemen and 58 French soldiers, still linger. The multinational force deployed to eastern Congo in 1996 to bring an end to massive violence and displacement illustrates the strengths and limitations of this approach. That force achieved its goal: The mere pre-deployment of the force in Entebbe, Uganda, got Rwanda to withdraw its forces back across its border — but not before Rwanda’s rulers killed tens of thousands of former rebels. Still, in both eastern Congo and East Timor, multinational forces probably forestalled a far-worse slaughter.
A stabilization force of this kind can’t fight its way into Damascus. The Syrian regime, or at least the army, doesn’t have to formally acquiesce to its deployment, but it does have to signal that it won’t fight it on the way in. This was the case during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, when France, India, Italy, and others sent troops into southern Lebanon as part of a cease-fire arrangement. Hezbollah never agreed to the presence of the force, but quietly sent signals to Paris that it wouldn’t contest its deployment.

Why might Syria’s forces hold back? First, it’s a lot better than opening the door to aggressive attempts at regime change, if those measures start becoming more credible. Second, as in eastern Congo, the pre-deployment of such a force can change the army’s calculation. As my Brookings Institution colleague Martin Indyk has pointed out, the Syrian army has no appetite for a confrontation with Turkish forces, and even preparation of a force could shift its psychology and its assessment of the choices it faces. Western powers can also help by increasing the economic costs on Assad’s business-community supporters, by working with international financial institutions to stipulate that debt accrued under this regime should be considered “odious” — a step that would mean debt incurred under this regime need not be paid back, setting out a deeply uncertain economic future for Assad’s business-community supporters.

Who could lead such a force? Turkey has understandably equivocated about the option of using its army to help protect civilians or stabilize Syria. The risks Turkey faces are enormous — but it might be more willing to see its army deployed as part of a multinational force with international authorization, spreading both the operational costs and the political risk. Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have strongly signaled their desire to support the Syrian opposition, would be more than happy to supply the financing.

Such a force would first have to try to win Security Council authorization. Turkey would have to be willing to make the first move, as the willingness of one country to take a leadership role is usually a precondition of authorization. That’s already a tough step — but winning support from China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the Security Council who have already rejected two resolutions targeting Assad, will be even harder. Is it doable?

The odds aren’t as slim as one might think. Tactically, the right approach here would be for Turkey to make this proposal, not the United States. The Turks could seek support from its emerging-power friends both inside the Security Council (India, South Africa) and outside it (Brazil, Indonesia). The emerging powers collectively make a great deal of noise about using the Security Council as a tool to avoid force aimed at regime change. So let them lead an effort to do so.

Russia and China would be much harder pressed to oppose an initiative from these emerging powers than from the usual clutch of Western states in the Security Council. The Gulf can put some pressure on China here — Beijing is distracted by its own problems right now, and how much longer it will provide cover to Moscow’s errant allies in Syria remains to be seen.

And if the Security Council won’t authorize an international force, NATO or the Arab League could. NATO has been desperate to avoid getting dragged into Syria, but providing diplomatic cover for a multinational force is a different story.

Of course, some of U.S. President Barack Obama’s critics would no doubt charge that letting Turkey and others drive a proposal forward amounts to another example of “leading from behind” — but that criticism would be infantile, and the Obama administration has earned more than enough foreign-policy credibility to turn the other cheek. Once authorized, a force would certainly need U.S. intelligence and tactical support, but not American boots on the ground.

All of this, it bears repeating, is unlikely. There’s no overnight deus ex machina here. First, several more days will pass in diplomatic overtime trying to rescue Annan’s plan — infuriatingly so for Syrian civilians, but realistically the right call. Those frustrated by the slow pace of diplomacy must remember that military options will take weeks, if not months, to organize.

Still, faced with a range of other dreadful choices, this one might balance the pros and cons less badly than some. Right now, the so-called international community faces all bad choices, and Assad has the choice of continued slaughter — in slow motion or high gear. If and when diplomacy does finally fail, the decision to form a multinational force to protect civilians could turn the tables and confront Assad’s supporters with bad choices of their own.