The conflict in Syria has often assumed the ominous characteristic of being insoluble or endless.
The government and its various opponents have shown little interest in compromise. The Assad regime’s increasingly ferocious efforts have so far failed to suppress the activities of the resistance movements, who, in turn, have been unable to strike a serious blow against the regime. As soon as one part of the country has been subdued by ruthless force, protests have broken out in another.
Increasingly, violence has become the default response of all parties. Last week, Human Rights Watch accused government opponents (as well as the Government) of committing human rights abuses. More recently reports have begun to emerge of a descent into sectarianism.
An international failure
Internationally, efforts to address the problem have been undermined by Israeli and US ambivalence. Both governments are fretting about the implications for regional stability should Bashar Al-Assad be removed.
Arab countries have responded ineffectively to the conflict in Syria. The mission sent to monitor the violence by the Arab League folded at the beginning of the year. Saudi Arabia, with Qatar in tow, has been intent on severing the Iran-Syria relationship rather than contributing positively to the resolution of a massive human rights crisis.
Part of the problem facing mediation is that the various combatants in Syria have problems with those seeking a role. The Arab League, under undue Saudi influence, is not trusted by the Syrian government. The UN Security Council is also seen by the Assad regime as inherently hostile, especially when the US and its British and French allies began calling for regime change.
Given the circumstances, it was unlikely that Syria or its supporters in China and Russia would contemplate a serious response to demands to end to the fighting, except on the Syrian Government’s terms.
Kofi Annan’s formidable task
A genuine honest broker was needed – someone who might be able to cut through the snares of distrust that have entangled all parties. Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, has assumed this role as the envoy of both the United Nations and the Arab League.
Annan’s task is formidable. It demands great patience and persuasive powers and it was a surprise that he accepted the charge. A man as cautious and experienced as Annan would have been well aware of the pitfalls. He is unlikely to have accepted the role unless he was confident that had a reasonable chance of success.
The basis for Annan’s decision has emerged over the past few weeks. The widespread respect in which he is held has enabled Annan to deal with all the major domestic and foreign parties to the conflict. Even elements of the Syrian opposition who are suspicious have been muted in their reaction. Significantly, Annan moved quickly to produce his six-point plan (below), which was to serve as the basis for future negotiations.
Annan was able to extract certain concessions from the UN Security Council. Western nations’ decision to abandon their demand for regime change enabled the President of the Security Council to issue a statement, endorsed by all members of the Council, which welcomed Annan’s role and promoted a peaceful settlement of the fighting.
The statement does lack the legal and political force of a Council resolution but, nevertheless, marks a change in the debate among Security Council members. Subsequently, China and Russia altered their positions to raise the hope that, freed from the threat of regime change and faced by increasing pressure even from its friends, the regime in Damascus will be more inclined to respond.
Likelihood of success
President Al-Assad has reacted positively to Annan’s initiative. While violence continues throughout Syria, and Western governments have remained sceptical about Al-Assad’s sincerity, there are grounds for hope that a significant lessening of the violence, but not of oppression, may result. The opposition will not find this outcome to their liking.
A starting point for all negotiations must be that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will not step down voluntarily. Only an internal family or Alawite coup, or a violent overthrow of the whole Alawite-dominated system will see the Assad family leave the presidential palace in Damascus. This reality is reflected in Annan’s peace plan.
The best we can hope for is something approximating the status quo – the restoration of Assad’s authority across the country accompanied by a reduced military presence in areas of contention.
Al-Assad has made some cosmetic concessions to those protesting government policies. It is possible that more meaningful reforms might be offered once the President feels that his position is secure. These reforms might have important economic and political implications, but they would not question the regime’s overall control of the Syrian system. Change will only come when the regime feels it is acting from a position of strength.
Beyond the recalcitrance of the regime in Damascus, Annan’s plan is potentially threatened by the behaviour of the Saudis. At the recent Arab League meeting in Baghdad, Saudi Arabia actively canvassed the idea of arming elements of the opposition. Putting aside the legality of such actions, a policy of arming dissident groups would, as was pointed out by the Iraqi Prime Minister, have dangerously destabilising effects across the wider region and would strengthen the Syrian government’s resolve to resist compromise and to crush all opposition by force.
The prospects for Annan’s initiative are slender. Were he to fail, the crisis promises to slide further into a regional catastrophe.
On the other hand, the former Secretary-General is tenacious and is equipped for negotiations over the long haul. This is perhaps the best chance for an end to violence in Syria.
Annan’s six-point peace plan
Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people;
UN-supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians;
All parties to ensure provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and implement a daily two-hour humanitarian pause;
Authorities to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons;
Authorities to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists;
Authorities to respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully.