As Kofi Annan Arrives to Mediate, Syria’s Assad Regime is Far From Beaten

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Rodrigo Abd / AP

People carry Abdulaziz Abu Ahmed Khrer, killed by a Syrian Army sniper, during his funeral in Idlib, north Syria, March 8, 2012.

The defection of Syria’s deputy oil minister to the country’s year-old rebellion briefly captured headlines on Thursday, hailed in the West as a hopeful sign that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad may be starting to collapse. Don’t bet on it: Next week’s headlines look likely to be filled with grim accounts of a regime assault on the city of Idlib, where Assad’s forces have been massing to repeat the brutal pummeling that last week forced rebel fighters to evacuate the Baba Amr district of Homs after a month of ferocious bombardment. That’s why former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived in Damascus, Saturday, bearing “realistic” proposals aimed at securing a ceasefire. Assad told the mediator sent by the U.N. and the Arab League that there could be no political solution while “armed terrorist groups” continued to operate, and his forces began rolling into Idlib on Saturday. Earlier, opposition leaders had warned that there could be no negotiations while rebel held communities were under fire from the security forces.  Assad continues to set the terrain, and he has chosen to wage the struggle for his political survival as a sectarian civil war — a strategy that, at least in the short-term, plays to his advantages, while his opponents at home and abroad struggle to find a winning strategy to oust him.

Deputy oil minister Abdo Hussameldin denounced the brutality of a regime he’d served for 33 years and threw in his lot with the rebel cause in a video released Thursday. Hussameldin was a Sunni Muslim in a regime squarely rooted in the Alawite minority and found himself unable to continue serving in a regime raining artillery fire on rebel-held Sunni neighborhoods in Homs and elsewhere. Assad is betting that Alawite and Christian minorities will back the regime if the alternative is a Sunni-led armed rebellion. The civil war has largely broken down along sectarian lines, with Alawite core units of the security forces and loyalist militias doing most of the fighting for the regime, against predominantly Sunni rebel groups. In the process, the regime has lost the ability to restore for itself any kind of truly national legitimacy; it is increasingly the regime of an armed and organized minority whose determination to fight is driven by fear of its fate should its sectarian enemies triumph. All this, of course, is compounded by the proxy struggle between Iran (which backs Assad) and Saudi Arabia (which funds and arms the rebels).

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The regime is confident it can manage the situation. Its militarized repression may have fatally imperiled its ability to restore any kind of sustainable stability, but the rebels offer no immediate threat to the regime’s ability to survive. That’s the assessment of the authoritative London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which on Wednesday noted that rebel forces lack the strength to hold major population centers, and they remain fractured and divided among themselves. Arming the rebels from abroad, and/or direct intervention are options that face “formidable” obstacles, warned IISS director John Chipman, who also predicted that Assad would calibrate his own forces’ use of heavier weaponry in a way that avoided providing the sort of images that might draw-in Western powers. Use of air power by the regime, for example, has been limited, perhaps to keep critics from clamoring for a “no-fly” zone.

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After a year of rebellion, the opposition remains perilously divided to the point that it becomes difficult for foreign powers to act. Western and Arab hopes of recognizing the Syrian National Council (SNC) as a kind of government-in-waiting have been stymied by challenges to its authority from various rival groups on the ground, such as the Local Coordination Committees in various cities, and breakaway factions such as the Syrian Patriotic Group. The SNC has no political authority over the Free Syrian Army, a group that speaks in the name of insurgent defectors from the regime and rival rebel formations styling themselves the Free Officers Movement and the Syrian Liberation Army. When the SNC last weekend announced the formation of a military department to oversee the rebellion’s armed component, the move was immediately challenged by the FSA.

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The chaos of the opposition, fears of regional unrest, and the substantial military capability that the regime has thus far withheld, have held Western powers back. As the International Crisis Group noted earlier this week:

“Bereft of good ideas, Washington and its European allies seem endlessly to be waiting for something to happen — for protests to build up as they did in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (the regime is ensuring this will not occur); for the opposition to unite (an elusive if not illusory goal); for a palace coup (hard to fathom when Assad appears indispensable to the inner circle that surrounds him); for the business establishment to switch sides (that has happened already — but to no visible effect); for Aleppo or Damscus to join the uprising (they have, to a significant degree); or for defections to swell (they will, but only if officers and officials sense the end is in sight).”

The end, of course, is not yet in sight, nor is its shape clear.

Kofi Annan on Thursday warned against “any further militarisation will make the situation worse.” The priority, he said, was ending the violence in order to move towards a political settlement.  Those statements were dismissed as “disappointing” by SNC  leader Burhan Ghalioun, who said “military pressure” was on the regime was essential, rejected dialogue with Assad and questioned what Annan could achieve. It’s unlikely that Assad would accept any deal that did not have, at minimum Russian support, and Moscow has until now insisted that the regime be part of negotiating a political solution — rather than be required to step aside as a precondition.  With little prospect for bridging the divide any time soon,  Annan’s more immediate focus may be trying to secure a cease-fire arrangements to facilitate humanitarian aid, the need for which continues to expand as the regime seems continues to bludgeon rebel strongholds. It’s a brutal tactic, but one that ensures Assad stays in the game.

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