Why Syria’s Peace Process is a Continuation of War By Other Means

Article  •  Publié sur Souria Houria le 31 mars 2012

By Tony  Karon | @tonykaron | March 29,  2012
Sebastiano Tomada / Sipa

Sebastiano Tomada / Sipa
A Free Syrian Army member takes up a  position near Idlib, on March 23, 2012.

Skepticism by Syrian opposition groups and their foreign supporters over the  Kofi Annan peace plan ostensibly accepted  by President Bashar al-Assad is hardly surprising: The plan specifies no  timetable or sequence for its cease-fire and political solution to the power  struggle that has claimed some 9,000 lives over the past year, and — most  galling to the opposition — it doesn’t  require Assad to stand down. Assad, moreover, last November “accepted” a  plan with many similar provisions, but made sure it was never implemented.  There’s no reason to believe he’d have agreed, on Tuesday, to accept Annan’s  plan if he didn’t believe it offered him a possibility of ending the crisis  while remaining in power. Still, for all its flaws, Annan’s plan is the only  game in town. And matching the strongman in playing it might be key to the  opposition’s prospects in the weeks and months ahead.

The “Friends of Syria” group of Western and Arab supporters of the opposition  will meet in Istanbul on Friday, after corralling the fractious opposition to  forge a united statement of principles, establish a more inclusive lineup, and  empower the Syrian National Council to negotiate on behalf of the opposition.  But while it may boost sanctions against Assad and offer more non-lethal aid to  opposition groups on the ground, the Friends group remains unlikely to  countenance any moves to send arms to the rebels. And the prospect for foreign  military intervention remain remote. Over in Baghdad, where the Arab League is  meeting, Saudi Arabia continues to press for a more aggressive strategy of  backing the armed opposition, but appears unable to win endorsement from the  summit’s host, Iraq. With the regime easily prevailing in the head-to-head  military battle on the ground, that leaves the plan formulated by Annan,  mandated by the U.N. and the Arab League to mediate. And rather than reject it,  the Western powers appear set to press for its implementation on terms and a  timetable that block the regime’s current military campaign against opposition  strongholds. Assad, meanwhile, will seek to approach the plan on terms that  reinforce state authority.

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Annan’s plan does not claim to be a program to reconcile the regime and its  opponents or to resolve their differences. Instead, it’s a plan to demilitarize  Syria’s power struggle and restrict it to political means. The regime’s goals,  and those of its opponents, remain fundamentally irreconcilable: Assad is  determined to remain in power, while the opposition finds a consensus that  eludes it on so many other issues when it comes to demanding his immediate  ouster. What Annan’s plan offers, is a formula for managing that power  struggle within rules that limit its capacity to spill blood — in a U.N.  supervised cease-fire that withdraws the military from the cities and stands  down armed opposition groups, while allowing freedom to protest peacefully and  forcing the regime and opposition to negotiate.

Assad has accepted the plan, partly in response to pressure from some key  allies such as Russia and China to move toward some sort of political  accommodation and reform, and partly because he believes doing so can help  create conditions for him to remain in power. “President Assad is looking for a  way to end the uprising against his regime without stepping down or turning over  power to the revolutionary forces,” says University of Oklahoma Syria specialist Joshua Landis. On  the contrary, Assad believes his forces have the revolutionaries on the run  through the relentless bombardment that has broken their grip on every major  urban stronghold they’ve created, notes Landis, and he sees adopting “the Annan  plan [as] a step towards regaining international acceptance of his  government.”

The opposition sees Assad’s agenda, and believes he has signaled adoption of  the Annan plan simply to buy time while beating down the rebelloin. Hence the  reaction of SNC representative Basma Kodmani, who insisted that “A peaceful  transition means that the regime needs to be changed. And that starts with the  removal of the head of state.” And one Western diplomat speaking anonymously to  the Guardian warned that “if a ceasefire [is] achieved without a political  process, then Assad could stay in power.”

(MORE: The  Syrian Opposition Responds to Assad and Annan… Sort of)

Well, yes. The only reason Assad would enter this process is that he believes  he can use it to create conditions in which he can stay in power. He’d only cede  power if he perceived that he had no choice, but right now, his back is not  exactly against the wall. In fact, the only reason the Annan plan has come into  being is that the combined efforts of the opposition and its foreign backers has  not been sufficient to force out Assad after a year of rebellion in which the  U.N. calculates some 9,000 people have been killed. With little prospect of an  imminent internal collapse of the regime, and reluctance to fuel a sectarian  civil war by arming the opposition, much less to intervening directly, the  international community has been forced to accept a new plan that does not, in  fact, begin with the removal of Assad. And the regime will be hoping,  and working to ensure, that the process doesn’t end with that outcome — even though opposition activists make clear that they will settle for nothing  less.

The opposition, if they accept the plan, will also do so reluctantly, because  they have been left no alternative by their weakness on the military front and  have been pressured to do so by their outside backers. But some may also  recognize that the Assad plan, at least as it is written, plays to their  strengths by shutting down the armed confrontation while allowing for peaceful  protest and political activity. There’s nothing unusual about protagonists  entering a negotiation process with mutually antagonistic goals and differing  interpretations of what that process requires of them, and of their adversaries.  The U.S. and North Vietnam spent four years in and out of negotiations while  slugging it out on the ground before reaching agreement on a U.S. pullout — and  the two sides had such profoundly different interpretations of what had been  agreed that the war raged on for a further two years. Israelis and Palestinians  may have agreed on a peace process two decades ago, but that has simply become  another theater of their ongoing struggle — one in which the objective is to  avoid being blamed for the breakdown made inevitable by the two sides’ irreconcilable differences, in order to keep or win U.S. support.

So, while the Western powers don’t trust Assad’s intentions, they will likely  still press the SNC to engage in the Annan process, and push for immediate  implementation of those provisions that stay the dictator’s hand. Assad, for his  part, believes his forces are in a “mopping up” stage of their campaign against  armed opposition groups, says Landis. He doesn’t trust the opposition nor intend  to allow it to peacefully oust him, and he’ll approach the Annan process by  insisting that the cease-fire begin with rebel groups. And comments last weekend  by a senior Russian official putting the onus on the rebels for ending the  violence suggest that Moscow and Western powers may also have very different  ideas of how Annan’s plan would be implemented.

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The former U.N. Secretary General has clearly recognized the importance of  maintaining a consensus between Western and Arab powers, and those that have  backed the regime, particularly Russia. Turning the plan from a relatively vague  series of principles into an enforceable cease-fire will be a matter of intense  struggle in the coming weeks. And it’s one that carries great risk, given the  divided nature of the opposition. In any diplomatic process, the regime has the  advantage of speaking with a single voice. Even now that the SNC has been  reorganized, it remains to be seen whether it represents the local level  activist groups confronting the regime on the ground, and the Free Syrian army  and its loose collection of local armed units. Lack of coherence in the  opposition, moreover, works to Assad’s advantage, if he accepts the deal and the  fractured opposition can’t agree to do so in an enforceable way over the  disparate groups on the ground doing the actual fighting. That might allow  regime to use ongoing resistance as means to sustain its own repression.

What is clear already, however, is that even if the opposition do join Assad  in embracing the peace plan, that’s unlikely  to mean that Syria’s civil  war is drawing to a close. Instead, it may simply be  entering a new  phase.

MORE: A  Reporter’s Escape from Syria

Read more: http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2012/03/29/why-syrias-peace-process-is-a-continuation-of-war-by-other-means/#ixzz1qeEXcV5Z