March 27, 2012

Another Bloody Step Forward In Syria

After months of haggling with the Arab League and UN powers in the Security Council, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced on Tuesday that he finally extracted an agreement from Syria's Bashar al-Assad. This news verges on the redundant - al-Assad's regime conditionally accepted Annan's international offer last weekend - but his latest reply is perceived as the first step to halting Syria's bloodshed. With Moscow and Beijing encouraging the strongman to accept generous political terms from the UN, Annan met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao before telling reporters, "I indicated that I had received a response from the Syrian government and will be making it public today, which is positive, and we hope to work with them to translate it into action."

If one squints hard enough, al-Assad's "response" could begin to take the shape of real movement towards a ceasefire, especially in the absence of an alternative. On a positive note, media access has gradually improved from quarantine levels and a spokesman from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) reported some improvements on the ground. "We have much better access than ever before, not only to Homs but to other areas," says Saleh Dabbakeh. "It's easier to get authorization from the authorities than before."

Unfortunately Annan's proposal has yet to transform from a recipe for disaster. Even if al-Assad's security forces pull back in accordance with UN demands, expanding protests are likely to generate a repeat of January's aborted AL mission and the government's corresponding assaults in oppositional territory. Anticipating a potential breakdown, Western officials skeptically welcomed al-Assad's response to a proposal that the U.S., European and Gulf states have advocated for months. William Hague, Britain's Foreign Secretary, called al-Assad's overture "a significant first step towards bringing an end to the violence... if it is genuinely and seriously meant," but "that has not been the case with previous commitments the regime has made." Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, added from Washington, "I have to tell you that my own experience with him is you want to see steps on the ground and not just take his word at face value."

Echoing these statements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted, "the initial step that the Assad regime has written the United Nations to accept the Annan plan. Let me just pause here to say, however, that given Assad’s history of over-promising and under-delivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate actions. We will judge Assad’s sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says. If he is ready to bring this dark chapter in Syria’s history to a close, he can prove it by immediately ordering regime forces to stop firing and begin withdrawing from populated areas."

al-Assad's regime maintained its assault throughout weeks of communication with Annan and continues to target oppositional elements in the present hour. "The old city of Homs has been under shelling for 18 days," said Saif Hurria, an anti-government activist. al-Assad also visited the decimated Hama neighborhood of Baba Amr to blame its conditions on the revolutionaries, pledging that "life will return to normal in Baba Amr, better than it was before." Annan's proposal was never mentioned.

Due to a combination of political and military factors, the odds of a permanent or temporarily ceasefire are too low to translate into reality. Syria's opposition remains open to exploring any avenue that interrupts a vicious cycle of violence, but the terms of Annan's proposal are heavily skewed in al-Assad's favor. Western powers have already ceded their demand that al-Assad resign in order to secure Russian and Chinese support, an arrangement that undercuts Syria's opposition. Annan claims that Moscow is "prepared... to work with me not only in supporting the approach and the plans I've put on the table but also in encouraging the parties to move in the same direction." Ongoing developments, though, indicate otherwise. Amid high-profile negotiations between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, President Dmitry Medvedev rejected al-Assad's exit as a “shortsighted” and unrealistic plan to "resolve the country’s conflict."

While his removal by no means guarantees a stale outcome, al-Assad and his foreign allies expect the prospect of civil war to capitulate Western and Gulf powers. The regime's survival will be secured by utilizing cosmetic reforms.

The lack of consensus for dialogue within the opposition is equally problematic. Members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) have emphasized the overriding urgency to end the bloodshed, but the group is justifiably suspicious of al-Assad's intentions. Many public actors vocally expect another trap. One spokeswoman, Basma Kodmani, said the opposition's demand that al-Assad resign "will never change... What we are saying here is that if this can open the way for a peaceful transition of power, this is what we would like to see."

"A peaceful transition means that the regime needs to be changed," she said. "And that starts with the removal of the head of the state."

These types of statements will provide al-Assad with his latest political escape; international pressure is already shifting back to the opposition, giving him additional pretexts to renege on the League's initiative. Last weekend al-Assad demanded that the revolutionaries disarm before entering into a dialogue, establishing the conditions for a future spoiler. Clinton and other Western officials have chosen a similar path for divergent reasons, saying the opposition "must clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and respecting the rights of all Syrians, and we are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision."

Although unity and coordination is vital during a revolution, foreign capitals on both sides of the power equation have set unrealistic demands for a varied opposition. They understandably seek a transparent party before offering full political and military support, but they should also accept the inherent principles of netwar. The State Department's Victoria Nuland confronted these difficulties on Tuesday, saying, "these groups are, for the first time, coming together and trying to work together. Many of them don’t know each other. They’re having to build trust, they’re having to build common ground. So it’s not surprising that it’s taking time." Nevertheless, Western powers remain guilty of seeking the quickest end to a protracted struggle, viewing the conflict through conventional eyes rather than a revolutionary mind.

UN powers demand that the opposition unify in the near future so that a dialogue can begin with the regime.

Moscow continues to exploit the opposition's disorganization for its own purposes. As Western and Gulf powers encourage the SNC to establish a common vision of Syria during their summit in Istanbul, Russia's Alexander Lukashevich condemned the meeting for not "looking for dialogue that could put an end to the conflict." According to the Foreign Ministry spokesman, "The participants in Istanbul meeting are preparing for foreign intervention and they are not seeking solution for national dialogue or a peaceful settlement to the crisis in Syria." His statements, which are displayed prominently on SANA state media, encompass both the opposition and international community. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov overtly broadcast al-Assad's strategy to scapegoat the SNC: "this is a step forward…now it's the opposition's turn."

As if the strongman has offered anything to the opposition beyond bullets and shells.

Despite its international accolades, the AL/UN's proposal remains an inherently unequal and unstable plan to end Syria's revolution. Both al-Assad and the international community's interests are weighed above Syria's opposition, contributing to the disharmony between its layers. Past experiences aren't required to judge the future of al-Assad's latest political maneuver. The present is its own evidence that Syria just took another step towards a longer, costlier war.

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