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Syria and the Annan Plan: The Devil in the Details

By Nicolas Nassif | Al Akhbar | March 27, 2012

While the Syrian regime was pleased with last week’s UN Security Council Presidential Statement on Syria, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was not. It registered its objections, and saw it as providing another chance to President Bashar Assad. Damascus welcomed both the statement and the plan which the UN and Arab envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, devised after gaining the approval of the international community.

Sources who got to meet high-ranking Syrian officials over the weekend sensed the extent to which the presidential statement was welcomed by Damascus. They also provided some insight into the level of cooperation between Damascus and Moscow on the substance of Annan’s initiative, and their commitment to making a success of it.

While the Syrian leadership supports the general principles of Annan’s plan, it has taken a cautious view of the mechanisms and measures which will need to be taken to implement it.

This stems from a conviction that the devil will lie in details if they are left vague, especially when the time comes for a ceasefire and political dialogue. Accordingly, while Annan completes his talks in Russia and China and prepares to begin implementing his plan, Damascus’ approach will be based on a number of considerations:

1. The initiative must be implemented through the “Syrian state” at all stages: starting with the proposed ceasefire and restoration of calm, extending to the delivery of humanitarian aid, and culminating in a national political dialogue. None of this will occur unless the process for implementing this initiative is approved by the regime and conforms with what it is describes as the “principles of sovereignty.”

Damascus’ position is that it is waiting to see how this initiative will be implemented, while affirming its endorsement of the plan. But the regime insists that any political dialogue about the future of Syria – the end-goal of the initiative – must be held under the auspices of the “Syrian state.”

2. Damascus is greatly satisfied and encouraged by the fact that the presidential statement did not reiterate the demand that the Arab League, France, the US, and Turkey had been insisting on. Namely, that the Syrian president step down and immediately transfer power so a political settlement can be concluded in isolation from him. The regime sees this tacit re-acknowledgement of its authority as a chance to open up dialogue again.

The high-ranking officials insisted to their visitors, however, that Syrian leaders had at no stage been fixated on or alarmed by this demand. They were never under any illusion that, in current international conditions, it was within the capacity of any party, domestic or foreign, to force Assad to step down.

This applies equally to the Syrian opposition, to the many declarations made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her French counterpart Alain Juppe, the Arab League in its second initiative on January 2, and Qatari, Saudi, and Turkish leaders. Damascus never commented on any of their statements. It declined to get into an argument with them about whether Assad should leave office.

The view put forward by Damascus in defense of its position is that the new Syrian constitution furnishes a mechanism for the transfer or rotation of power. But decapitating the regime – the argument Moscow has also been stressing – would be a recipe for chaos. As the regime sees it, the president stands for the integrity and cohesion of the army and the unity of the country. This position was matched by the similar stand taken by Russia and China against any external foreign military intervention to compel Assad to step down or depose him by force. Also this is why they opposed arming the opposition.

As a result, the international picture has changed significantly since the two countries blocked the attempt to issue a Security Council resolution on Syria on February 4. The threat to force Assad out has been practically dropped – though Arab and Western states may still speak of not just the president’s days, but the regime’s, being numbered – and everybody has opted for a political settlement to be brought about under him.

This approach was reinforced at Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s March 10 meeting with the committee of Arab foreign ministers dealing with Syria. It was confirmed in the appointment of Annan as envoy, and again in the proposals he has put forward, and the Security Council’s endorsement of it last Wednesday.

3. Damascus believes that the real gain it made from the presidential statement was the UN’s acknowledgement that there are two sides to the violence in the Syrian crisis.

This dispensed with the pretext with which the Arabs and the West had armed themselves until Lavrov’s visit to Cairo – namely, that the violence was one-sided, indiscriminate, and practised exclusively by the regime. The existence of armed anti-regime groups was either denied outright, or justified as self-defense.

But the presidential statement, by calling for a ceasefire and end to fighting, conceded that there is another party engaged in violence, and that an armed confrontation is underway. While it did not identify that other party – composed of a combination of Salafis, Muslim Brothers, and deserters – it recognized its existence. This reinforced the regime’s rationale for using decisive military force to try to eliminate members of the armed opposition in Homs, Idlib, and Deir al-Zour, so as to pre-empt any attempt to create buffer zones or similar enclaves in border areas.

Damascus is indebted to Russia and China for supporting its viewpoint and steering the Security Council in the opposite direction to which the Arab League had intended. It had insisted, without hesitation, that the violence was from one side only. The Arab League ignored the report by the chief of its own observer mission, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, and transferred the Syria dossier to the Security Council.

But once there, it did not take long for Moscow’s view to converge with Washington’s over the issue of arming the Syrian opposition. The Americans are wary of Al-Qaeda infiltration of Syrian rebel groups, and fear their weapons could end up reaching the terrorist organization.

4. Damascus believes Annan fully understands the many difficulties involved in his task of bringing about a political settlement. Two sets of these stand out in particular: those connected to convening the proposed national dialogue, and those related to halting the violence on the streets.

Defining the party that will sit opposite the regime at the national dialogue table will be an early obstacle. It is not just that the political opposition, both at home and in exile, is deeply divided. So is the armed component of the opposition, which includes Salafi organizations, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter are part of the SNC, which has set up its own military bureau and is at odds with the FSA. That in turn is divided between followers of Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad and Brigadier Mustafa Ahmad al-Sheikh.

The political dialogue cannot include the non-SNC armed opposition when it has not yet said who speaks for it. Annan does not know who to talk to in this regard, at least not yet. In the meantime, the political dialogue stands to be between a known actor, the regime, and an undetermined interlocutor, half of which is clandestine, and the other half of which is at odds with itself.

A second obstacle lies in the measures to be taken on the ground to bring about an end to fighting, the withdrawal of gunmen and the army, and the delivery of humanitarian aid to residents of affected areas. Syrian leaders see potential problems in the plans that Annan and his aides devised for arranging these measures and deploying international observers to monitor them.

The Syrian authorities are not simply waiting to see what Annan comes up with in this regard. They have been stressing an issue of extreme sensitivity, which the Syrian leadership considers an absolute necessity for the restoration of normal life to the country: there must be no consolidation of dividing lines between army- and rebel-controlled areas, either in towns or the countryside. Also they have stressed that there must be no deployment of international observers on such lines, which would effectively enforce a fait accompli ahead of political talks.

Damascus has informed all concerned parties that it will not agree to measures which recreate the kind of “confrontation lines” that were established during the Lebanese Civil War, which entrenched the positions of the opposing parties and fuelled the conflict.

It has stressed that a ceasefire must not entail the drawing of such lines inside Syria. Rather, it should result in the disappearance of gunmen and their weapons from the streets, an end to all illegal armed activity, and the reconnection of different parts of the country with each other. Only that would justify ordering the army back to barracks.

Similarly, the task of international observers must not be to monitor a ceasefire, police ceasefire lines, or separate two warring parties, but to monitor the restoration of normalcy in the country. Damascus sees this is as a key point in the Annan initiative which all sides must respect.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

March 27, 2012 - Posted by | Militarism | , , , ,

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