Syria Opposition Sees Annan Failure as Vindication of its Armed Struggle

Absence of a political solution makes a military victory more urgent, say opposition leaders. But stability after Assad remains a daunting challenge

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AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian boys play on a destroyed Syrian army tank close to the Azaz mosque, north of the restive city of Aleppo, on August 2, 2012.

If the resignation of peace envoy Kofi Annan has left world powers scrambling for ways to bring about a political solution to Syria‘s civil war, it has confirmed the Syrian opposition’s belief that there is no alternative to a military struggle to bring down the Assad regime. “The defeat of the Annan plan means there is no political solution,” says Sorbonne sociology professor Burhan Ghallioun, executive member and former leader of the opposition Syrian National Council. “The Western powers and the whole international community now has to support a transition to democracy by all means possible. We have no time to waste.” In a largely symbolic show of support, the UN General Assembly on Friday called for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to halt their attacks on the rebels, and for a political transition to begin immediately.

(MORE: Why Syria and the World Will Miss Kofi Annan’s Peace Plan)

Despite rebel supporters’ belief that the new phase of the armed struggle epitomized by the battle for control of Aleppo has brought overall victory within reach, prospects for a democratic transition appear increasingly remote after 17 months of bloodshed that opposition supporters say has claimed as many as 20,000 lives. The escalation of the fighting in recent weeks has seen the military struggle eclipse political options in a manner that may have profound consequences for a post-Assad future. Though Ghalioun managed to sneak into the rebel-held territory of Idlib in late June and have his photo snapped with gun-toting FSA fighters, political opposition leaders like himself, in suits and ties and comfortable in the corridors of power in Western capitals, have seemed in danger of being marginalized by the battle on the ground. Despite being anointed as a leadership in waiting by Western and Arab supporters of the struggle against Assad, there is a growing sense that the exiled politicians like Ghalioun might have to fight for their place in a post-Assad Syria.

Sitting on the balcony of his apartment in a Paris suburb, with two French bodyguards close by, Ghalioun says that SNC leaders have lately discussed forming a group of exiled technocrats like himself “to stand a little apart as a reconciliation force” during the expected tumult of a post-Assad period.

Despite such talk of reconciliation, however, the opposition has done little thus far to persuade most of the regime’s traditional support base that they have nothing to fear in a post-Assad Syria. That is a stark contrast to Libya, where the revolt was launched in early 2011 partly by defectors from Muammar Gaddafi‘s regime, who then went on to become key figures in the opposition leadership and in the post-Gaddafi government.

Despite 17 months of bitter fighting, it might not be too late to reach out to some of Assad’s traditional supporters, says Monzer Makhous, the SNC’s spokesman in Europe. Makhous should know: Born in the coastal city of Latakia, he is from the Alawite minority that has ruled Syria for four decades under Bashar al-Assad, and his father Hafez before him. Makhous believes that “the great majority” of Alawites would abandon Assad if they were convinced that they would not face bloody retribution at the hands of the rebels. Instead, most cling to the regime, terrified that all-out slaughter of Alawites will follow Assad’s downfall. “The regime is trying to make out that only they are protecting the Alawites,” Makhous told TIME on Friday. “The Syrian opposition and the SNC has done nothing to address this problem. We need to make political connections with these people.”

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev)

A prize opportunity to forge links with regime insiders came last month with the defection of Manaf Tlas, a Republican Guard brigade commander and one of Assad’s longtime confidantes, who fled to Paris on July 6. Although Tlas is a Sunni Muslim, Western officials had hoped his defection would prompt a wave of top regime officials to follow suit, enhancing prospects for a smooth political transition. The Wall Street Journal quoted one U.S. official saying that Tlas—a debonaire bon vivant from one of Syria’s richest families—was “one of the few figures in opposition to the regime who could potentially help restore order in Damascus.”

Despite the enthusiasm for Tlas in some foreign capitals where concerns are growing over the need to give the Syrian armed forces a central role in maintaining order after Assad falls, opposition figures have been cool towards the high-value defector. Makhous admitted on Friday that SNC offials have held talks with Tlas in Paris, but that they do not foresee a special position for him within their ranks. Likewise, Ghalioun dismisses any key role for Tlas. “He is a general, like others, who was a partner in the regime,” Ghalioun says. “He was cooked from the start of the revolution.”

In the absence of accord over how to manage a transition between rebels, opposition groups and regime figures like Tlas who may be wiling to break from Assad, the danger grows of a protracted civil war drawing in regional players. “The scene is… set for a proxy war between Shia militias recruited from Syria’s Alawite minority and a future Sunni-led Syrian government supplied by its richer Arab brethren,” writes Jonathan Eyal, head of international security studies at London’s defense think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in a briefing paper published last week. Since losing Assad would be a “calamity” for Iran, Tehran will arm Shi’ite-aligned militia groups inside Syria, says Eyal, who believes that Russia and Israel will also be drawn into a post-Assad conflict. “A less promising future for any country can hardly be imagined,” he says.

Forcing some form of peace on post-Assad Syria will be complex and dangerous, not to mention expensive. In the same RUSI report, the organization’s Director of Military Sciences, Michael Codner, calculates that the U.N. would need to deploy hundreds of thousands of peacekeepers, far more than the 200,000 peacekeepers it sent during the 1990s to war-torn Bosnia, where the population was just one-fifth of Syria’s today. Indeed, NATO officials at the time suggested sending up to 600,000 troops—a force which Syria could well ultimately require, although there appears to be little appetite among foreign powers currently to put boots on the ground in Syria. Even then, Codner argues, “peace enforcement would only be feasible if there was general acquiescence among the parties on the ground.” As Kofi Annan found out, such acquiescence is a long way off.

PHOTOS: As Syria Grieves: Photographs by Nicole Tung
MORE: U.S. Evangelicals See Political, Religious Cause in Syria Conflict

9 comments
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Jose Poronga
Jose Poronga

sooooooooooooooooo....... The Syrian government should stop attacking armed people who are trying to overthrow the government? and.... Who will stop the armed people from taking over the government? So the UN and annan want the rebels to topple the Syrian government...

Musawi Melake
Musawi Melake

 The problem here lies with the fact that instead of protesting by peaceful means the situation was exploited by some criminal gangs seeking to fish in troubled waters. Things would have been different if Mr. Anan entered the scene after the Western Powers asked the so called Free Syrian Army to lay down the arms, in a forceful manner. It's very uncertain whether the so called massacres that were highlighted by western media are genuine, for in an armed conflict it happens that the weakest party often kills it's own and say t he opposite party was responsible. Even now it's not too late. The US and it's allies could make a difference!, force the criminal elements to stop fighting and outlaw them as terrorists, initiate peace mission that advises Assad's govt. as to how to form a Truth and reconciliation commission and investigate to see if any human rights violations gave ever taken place. Any outside interference should be avoided, and whatever conclusion the commission comes with should be implemented. It could also be debated in bodies like UNHRC. Of course there are precedence for this! The just powers like China and Russia should take initiative for this.

varis
varis

Most important ignored story of the year...

Al Qaeda Is Not “Benefitting From” the Syrian Uprising … It’s CAUSING It

http://tinyurl.com/csm39gn

Pancha_Chandra
Pancha_Chandra

Syria has reached a point of no return! It is doomed as  a fierce civil war has ripped the country apart at its seams.  The villain of the piece is undoubtedly President Assad who has tried to cling on to power come what may.  Without any consideration for the welfare of his citizens,  he has taken the country to the edge of  a precipice. Arrogant to the extreme he has not allowed reason to guide him in any way. The resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly roundly criticized Syria but unfortunately this was not binding.  As expected Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council, are determined not to abandon Assad.  So this has given him some room for manoeuvre.  But for how long?  

Khagaraj
Khagaraj

The Syrian rebels now saying " We told you so " after the departure of Kofi Annan is NOT going to help them in any way because the Syrian government is now equally free to deal with ,what some in the West continue to call, "protestors " in its own unfettered way.

rory2012
rory2012

Assad should start a war with Turkey or Saudi,it's the only way out.

William Lee Barnes
William Lee Barnes

Well, he (Assad) could invite Romney and Clint Eastwood for a tea party. That should just about do it.

mdshams22
mdshams22

USA, A BANKRUPT COUNTRY ,  CAN NOT AFFORD  THIS WAR ANY MORE. DAY BY

DAY THE ARMS OF HARD POWER  IS BECOMING WEAK. ALSO THERE IS A  A PUTIN

FACTOR WHICH IS CAUSING LOT OF  TROUBLE.

SiDevilIam
SiDevilIam

 My dear Vivienne Walt.

I am Sid Harth.

I am very pleased with your article. Considering that I rarely praise journalists, foreign correspondents, bureau chiefs and overly polite, Oops, agitated local reporters from outside Syria.

To get to the bottom of this particular, Oops, peculiar, Arab Spring-loaded-revolving, Oops, revolver, you and I must agree on one theme.

Not to leave the battlefield till the end. I wish you all the best. I do. Hope to see you again. Sooner the better. Go start war, for heaven'ssake.

Famous media mogul, William Randolph Hearst, reputedly asked his Cuba bureau chief or a photographer, just what I told you.

There is money to make, circulation to skyrocket, special editions to be printed and reprinted, advertising revenue to increasing. It is TIME to think about some profit.

Just kidding. B Gd.

God bless.

...and I am Sid Harth@webworldismyoyster.com