April 12, 2012

Unraveling al-Assad's Mind Games

Any silence is worth its own weight to people that have been shelled and shot at continuously for weeks. Syria's guns fell relatively silent on Thursday as 6 A.M. passed into uncertainty, with Bashar al-Assad's regime and the political opposition both taking credit for a nebulous ceasefire. The hazy situation has left everyone to anticipate what follows a rare moment of calm in Syria's revolutionary storm.

“A tentative or less than complete cease-fire is better than no cease-fire at all, but we could not call the current situation on the ground a full cease-fire,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.

Even a brief ceasefire is somewhat surprising given al-Assad's recent behavior and psychological makeup, but the strongman was motivated to stop shooting at the very last moment. Viewing April 12th's international deadline an opportunity to kill over 1,000 Syrians in a span of weeks, al-Assad's regime continues to stake its claim as the only party to abide by Kofi Annan's diplomatic mission. This duplicitous plan has contributed to the regime's survival throughout months of negotiations with the Arab League, but al-Assad's schemes will begin to erode if a UN monitoring team can inject itself into the conflict. Any obstruction of the mission will push a UN peacekeeping force closer to reality, a possibility that the Arab League couldn't deliver.

Unfortunately Annan's six-point initiative is ripe for exploitation and al-Assad hasn't exhausted his tactics or desire to cling to power. Adib al Shishakly, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), criticized the regime and international community for diluting "the whole initiative into one thing: into the cease-fire only. What happened to the other five?" One of these five remaining conditions is the right to peacefully protest, which the opposition will test to its limit on Friday.

“We call on the people to demonstrate and express themselves," SNC chairman Burhan Ghalioun told the AFP on Thursday morning, "because the right to demonstrate is a principle point of the plan."

According to Syria's Local Coordination Committees (LCC), anti-government protesters have already emerged in the hotspots Idlib, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Damascus. Some were greeted with gunfire, while tanks and snipers continue to assert their presence as a means of deterrence. Having cheated the idea of a ceasefire by maintaining his forces' positions, al-Assad is now awaiting any sporadic attack to justify a disproportionate response. Manufacturing a bombing on an army checkpoint, oil pipeline or government building could be a possibility. Whatever the case, Syrians expect al-Assad to use every tactic available to impede mass demonstrations against his rule.

"While we call on the Syrian people to protest strongly," Ghalioun added, "we ask them to be cautious because the regime will not respect the ceasefire and will shoot."

al-Assad can also renege on the other components of Annan's plan, including the release of political detainees, by tying the issue into a legal knot and maintaining the status quo. Access for the international media remains limited and the ultimate end of a "political transition" is a powder keg waiting to detonate. Bashar Jaafari, Syria's ambassador to the UN, highlighted these discrepancies when he spoke with PBS's Charlie Rose on Wednesday. Fixated on Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France and the U.S. as the source of Syria's instigation, Jaafari's rhetoric offers one of many reasons to doubt the long-term prospects of Annan's plan. The fundamental dilemma is that al-Assad's regime, the opposition and foreign powers still express contradictory versions of a political transition.

"We're encouraged that we do now have a cessation of violence in Syria," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said. "We hope it holds. Everybody needs to behave with maximum prudence for that to happen. Frankly, there is one thing which Mr. Annan, I hope, is going to accomplish very soon — clear-cut agreement by opposition leaders to enter into dialogue with the Syrian government. This so far has not happened."

Meanwhile Syria's opposition demands that al-Assad step down before any dialogue is initiated with the government, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mixed the two options following the G-8's latest ministerial in Washington. Telling al-Assad that Annan's plan "is not a menu of options," she placed "the burden of fully and visibly meeting all of these obligations" on the regime. For a ceasefire to be "meaningful," Clinton says, "this apparent halt in violence must lead to a credible political process and a peaceful, inclusive, democratic transition." She then concludes by declaring "Assad will have to go, and the Syrian people must be given the chance to chart their own future." Still hoping to avoid military intervention while simultaneously influencing the political process, Western and Gulf countries envision al-Assad stepping down into Yemen's two-year transition "model" (even though the Arab League's original condition to delegate power to a vice president was scrapped from Annan's plan).

Conversely, Jaafari told Rose that al-Assad will accept the people's decision if he is voted out of office in 2014's presidential election. "The credibility of the Syrian government has been confirmed," he told reporters on Thursday, offering a mere taste of the vicious political battle to come. In the event that a military ceasefire does hold, the next round of political warfare will intensify and offer al-Assad all the reason he needs to restart his crackdown. The regime still doesn't accept the fact (at least publicly) that a revolution is occurring and governments only negotiate to avoid a total collapse (as Yemen's revolution demonstrates). Jaafari repeatedly blamed Syria's "crisis" on external factors, a common counterrevolutionary error that underscores the regime's resistance to Annan's proposal.

The pervading skepticism of Syria's ceasefire is unlikely to free the international community from the military hook. Another waiting period will be unacceptable to Syria's revolutionaries and Ghalioun, who urged "the countries that back the Annan plan to monitor its implementation in full, mainly the right to demonstrate... and to provide the means to protect the people if the regime violates the plan."

The UNSC must be ready to act, not talk, if Syria's ceasefire shatters.

1 comment:

  1. Another piece in the arch of chaos.
    This will take a long time to iron out, no matter which way it goes.
    There is no simple answer to any of this as you well know.
    Too many fingerprints and shadows behind the curtains.
    My question is this.
    Did outside intervention help or hinder the peace process?
    KSA, GCC, The West, A/Q, and others have funded and or participating with the freedom fighters of Syria.
    Will this be Libya to the extreme?