Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accepted the UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s 6-point peace plan to end violence; yet the gesture seems shallow and deceitful, as fresh clashes broke out once again across Syria on Wednesday.
Facing growing global pressure over the rising suppression of his regime in the country, Assad had no option but to accept the UN special envoy’s peace proposal. With the “Friends of Syria” contact group limiting resources through strict sanctions and increasingly stringent rhetoric against Assad’s few remaining allies in China and Russia, the embattled President had nothing to lose by accepting the peace plan. Nevertheless, timing was likely the key factor in the Syrian government’s response, hoping to delay international response to the humanitarian crisis in his country. By making this show of grandeur acceptance of peace, Assad has made it much more difficult for western powers to stress the immediacy of the situation in Syria. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and other global leaders are expected to discuss ways to assist the Syrian opposition at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul this Sunday. The meeting relies heavily on attendance and UN congruence, which Assad has effectively slowed down, because his consent to this peace plan will force the UN into carrying out long-winded negotiation with the Syrian regime. Despite flicker of hope, with many seeking to find a thaw in the endless tyranny of the Assad family regime, most remain skeptical and agree that Assad’s agreement is merely a fraud at buying time to repress all opposition once and for all. With similar delay tactics being used by Assad’s last remaining ally, Iran, in the nuclear talks over its facility Parchin, the skepticism is not unfounded.
“They can keep on negotiating and drag this out, because with every passing week they kill more dissidents. I think what the regime is hoping is they can crush all of this before anybody moves to help the opposition.” – Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
The Syrian cooperation with this plan is a transition from its previous blunt rejections of both UN and Arab League peace plans, but the key difference lies in that Annan’s plan does not require Assad to leave office. With Russia and China standing-by Assad indefinitely, the plan offered Assad an escape from EU and US sanctions while remaining hold of his seat of power; thus, the logic of Assad’s consent is evident considering its leniency. China and Russia have vetoed recent UN resolution to condemn Assad, securing him from the brunt of the international community and have thus granted him this last opportunity to talk a good game and gain more time. The protracted crisis has become an international nightmare and yet the only plan lying ahead is to draw the Chinese and Russian into dialogue to stop the fighting and to allow Assad to stay in power. The plan rests on political dialogue with another party that has a gun to the head of its civilian populace, has the support of the two largest land powers, and has nothing to lose from perpetuating circular negotiations. Evidently, the Annan peace plan has little to offer to the opposition and will only serve as another stepping stone for the eventual intensification of violence in another month or two.
“It will talk the talk of cooperation with the international community, but not walk the walk on the actual requirements that are necessary, such as really ceasing the use of lethal force against its own people in the streets of Syria.” – Edward Djerejian, US Ambassador to Syria
The Annan peace plan calls for: an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address grass-roots grievances; a commitment to halt fighting and forge a UN supervised halt of violence by the government and opposition groups; timely humanitarian aid; speeding up the release of arbitrarily detained people, including those engaged in peaceful political activities; ensuring freedom of movement for journalists; and respecting peaceful demonstration and freedom of association. Assad has little to lose by signing the plan as the concessions he will be forced to make include a ceasefire, ensuring humanitarian assistance, a release of political prisoners, allowing entry to journalists, and permitting demonstrations, all of which can be easily reversed relatively quickly. Meanwhile, the benefits for Assad are far more significant. Considering that he is being allowed to stay in power and not face trial for crimes against humanity despite killing over 10,000 Syrian citizens, some UN member states view the President’s acceptance of the plan as a positive step providing evidence of the regime’s new willingness to compromise with the opposition. Moreover, the plan also hurts the opposition which has not been forced to accept the indefinite rule of Assad according to the plan. Furthermore, the news of Assad’s acceptance will call for negotiation between the exiled opposition government, the Syrian National Council, which is already in rifts and should the negotiations actually occur, the question of who will speak for the opposition will only exacerbate the divisions. Annan’s plan also represents an impediment to critical funding from the US to Free Syrian Army, assistance that will not be received and will leave the army empty-handed.
“Given al-Assad’s history of overpromising and underdelivering, that commitment must not be matched by immediate actions. We will judge Assad’s sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not what he says.” – Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State
In retrospect, the Assad regime has been able to alleviate foreign pressure from the international community in the past and will continue to do so through the usual delay tactics and promises of liberalization. During the Bush administration, Assad came under scrutiny for the regime’s assumed role in the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and for helping move insurgents into Iraq to kill American soldiers. At moments of increased international pressure, however, Assad was able to escape through promises of possible peace negotiations with Israel and joining Egypt in that peace camp. Assad succeeded in escaping the Bush administration through such tactics and will do the same to the current Obama administration unless the UN, US and Arab League realize that none of Assad’s promises of laws of parties, elections and media are even remotely true.