Why a U.N. Syria Peace Plan Poses a Challenge to Rebels

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian rebel fighters man a checkpoint leading into the town of Taftanaz in the rebel stronghold province of Idlib on March 20, 2012.

The Kofi Annan peace plan unanimously endorsed Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council may pose an even greater dilemma for the Syrian opposition than it does for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. That’s because while it demands a halt to the regime’s military operations against opposition strongholds, it also retreats from the previous insistence by Western and Arab countries — and the Syrian opposition — that Assad immediately step down and hand power to a unity government as the starting point of a political solution to the year-long uprising. Instead, the Security Council statement calls for

  • both the regime’s forces and armed opposition groups to accept a U.N.-supervised cease-fire;
  • daily pauses for humanitarian assistance;
  •  the regime to release prisoners;
  •  freedom of access for journalists;
  •  freedom of assembly for peaceful protest; and for
  •  “the Syrian government and opposition to work in good faith with the Envoy [Annan] towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis” by engaging “in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people”.

(PHOTOS: Inside Syria: Photographs by Rodrigo Abd)

It remains to be seen whether the regime will honor its stated willingness to engage in a political dialogue if the opposition puts down its weapons. It would certainly face massive peaceful protests if it honored Annan’s terms, and it has no intention of ceding power even if it talks of constitutional reform while shelling opposition strongholds. But the Council statement carries considerable weigh by the fact that it was endorsed by Russia and China, which had vetoed previous resolutions precisely because they demanded that Assad step down. The new resolution, and Assad’s mission, appears to reflect an acceptance that he’ll be at the table in any political dialogue to resolve the conflict.

But the demand that the opposition negotiate with the regime on the terms laid down by Annan poses a dilemma for the fractured Syrian rebellion, some of whose leaders are set to convene in Turkey on Thursday and Friday: What is won at the negotiating table typically reflects the balance of power on the ground. And the reality, there, is that the Assad regime has proven far more resilient than its domestic and foreign opponents had assumed it would be.

“In the first year of the Syrian uprising, the opposition naively believed that the entire Syrian population would embrace it and abandon the regime or that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power… [and that] a ‘Tahrir Square moment’ would arrive within months of the uprising’s start,” explains University of Oklahoma Syria expert Joshua Landis. But that hasn’t happened because of sectarian and class anxieties that have discouraged defections on a scale that would bring down the regime. Fear of the alternative represented by the rebellion has not only enabled Assad to secure the loyalty of the regime’s Alawite core and the quiescence of the Christian minority, but even many in the relatively privileged Sunni middle and business classes remain fearful of a rebellion dominated by their poorer and more Islamist-inclined rural brethren. The core units of the security forces remain intact, while defections from the regime have not been of sufficient scale to threaten its capacity to survive. And the more militarized the rebellion has become, the more it has actually reinforced some of the factors that keep Assad in power.

(PHOTOS: The Uprising in Syria Rages On)

The bloodshed and sacrifice of a year in which some 8,000 Syrians have been killed, however, has seen the more moderate strains in the opposition leadership increasingly eclipsed by a harder line on the ground, where the armed component of the rebellion — bloodied and embittered by the losses it has sustained in a hopelessly uneven clash of arms — is becoming increasingly sectarian and Islamist. The military setbacks suffered by the rebels in recent weeks when brutal assaults by regime forces forced them to retreat from ground they had held in Homs, Idlib, Deraa and elsewhere, is likely to provoke a tactical shift towards something more akin to Iraq’s Sunni insurgency — more sectarian and Islamist in character, its leadership mostly anonymous and underground, and relying on hit-and-run guerrilla tactics and terror strikes aimed at demoralizing the regime.

“Opposition leaders on the ground, those who are actually fighting the regime, have already become more militant and more Islamized,” warns Landis. “If the Syrian National Council [the main opposition group backed by Western and Arab governments] doesn’t scramble to catch up, it will become irrelevant.” Indeed, the discord between the SNC and those it claims to represent on the ground has spurred a steady stream of defections from the Council and the establishment of rival leadership centers, while the leadership of the military dimension of the rebellion remains independent of the SNC and is also similarly fractured.

The latest U.N. vote may also underscore the dim prospects for foreign military intervention—for which Western powers have a declining appetite given the regional stakes—the fracturing of the opposition and the sectarian dimension that suggests  a civil war could continue even after Assad was deposed. As Georgetown professor Daniel Byman points out, “It is hard to break Assad’s hold without breaking Syria.” And the specter of a failed state with a substantial arsenal of chemical weapons, and a pivotal position at the fulcrum of all the region’s geopolitical tensions gives all of the Western powers pause.

The reality reflected in the revised U.N. peace plan is that the regime is far from beaten, and a negotiated settlement is likely to offer the rebels less than Assad’s surrender. But it may be the only alternative foreign powers are willing to offer. Pressing on with an armed rebellion would likely require a protracted Iraq-style insurgency with uncertain results. To be sure, the rebellion is on a stronger footing if matters are settled politically than it if they’re to be settled by force of arms — that may be why the Assad regime unleashed such ruthless repression against peaceful protests at the onset of the rebellion to provoke it onto terrain more favorable to those in power.

(MORE: Why Syria Won’t Get the Libya Treatment from the West)

The insurgency option may be preferred by some of those in the rag-tag fighting units on the ground, and in communities that have suffered most from Assad’s bludgeoning. But it appears to be alienating much of the urban elite whose support would be essential to easing out the regime. For example, the Guardian’s Jonathan Steele was told by banker Nabil Sukkar, who recently met with Annan in Damascus: “We are in the silent majority who want reconciliation and a peaceful transition to democracy. Unfortunately, neither side is willing to compromise. Both sides are to blame. The regime has used force but the opposition is pretty well armed and getting more so. Russia is extremely important in putting pressure on the regime. We also need someone who could put pressure on the opposition.”

One year into the rebellion, its architects stand at a crossroads, facing a choice between less than satisfactory political process that gives more assurance to Assad than they’d prefer, and a protracted and even bloodier war with less certain outcome. Given the language used by Assad in his private emails to rubbish the kinds of political changes  advocated by Annan with Russian and Chinese backing, it’s clear which option he’d prefer his opponents to take. He may well believe that if he signals acceptance of U.N. terms and the opposition fights on, he’ll have won license to do the same. And it’s a safe bet he’ll interpret cooperation in a way that least impedes his ongoing repression. Less clear is whether the opposition is willing, or able, to turn from the path of a fight to the finish, or even to speak with one voice as they reach a strategic crossroads.

The history of the past year, of course, suggests there’s little reason for optimism. Indeed, Assad’s Russian backers might be chiding him for his “very many mistakes”
in his violent response to the initial protest movement, but he may instead be following the advice of his Iranian allies who have urged him to follow the example of their own suppression of opposition protest. Nobody should be betting right now on peace breaking out in the post-Arab Spring spring.

MORE: Who Will Save Syria?