As Assad ‘Accepts’ Peace Plan, Can Syria Reset its Rebellion?

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AFP / Getty Images

Free Syrian Army members take position as heavy fighting erupts on a nearby hillside in the mountains, west of Idlib, on March 19, 2012.

Three sets of meetings in different capitals on Tuesday offer a bleak reminder that Syria’s uprising against President Bashar al-Assad faces something of a do-over. Syrian opposition figures are gathered in Istanbul at the behest of Turkey and Qatar, searching for the unity of purpose, organization and command that has thus far eluded them — to the boundless frustration of their international backers. Some of those backers will be in Baghdad, attending the first summit of the Arab League to be convened in the Iraqi capital in 22 years: Syria, whose membership in the body is suspended, will be a top agenda item, but the League may have little choice but to walk back its earlier demand that Assad effectively step down to begin a political transition, and instead back the peace plan devised on its behalf, and the U.N.’s, by the international body’s former Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Annan, for his part, will spend Tuesday in Beijing, enlisting China’s backing for his peace plan. That plan has been accepted by Syria’s government, the envoy announced on Tuesday. The common theme running through all three meetings is the fact that Assad has survived a year of rebellion, and as a result, the only peace plan on offer is one in which his regime negotiates with the opposition.

Speaking in Moscow on Monday, Annan said the question of whether Assad would step down was for the Syrian people to decide. “It may in the end come to that, but it’s not up to me. It’s up to the Syrians. Our effort is to help the Syrians come to the table and find some way out of all of this.” In other words, the process of forging a political solution begins with Assad still in charge, rather than with his removal as Western and Arab powers had previously demanded.

(PHOTOS: Inside Syria: Photographer Rodrigo Abd Recounts a Civil War)

The same question is a little trickier for the Arab League, which Qatar and Saudi Arabia had spurred to press for a regime-change that would sweep out the key Arab ally of their regional nemesis, Iran. The League summit is being hosted by Iran’s other key Arab ally, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has been more supportive of Assad. Iraq’s foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari suggested Monday that the summit would back Annan’s plan and seek a “doable” solution rather than demanding Assad’s ouster as a precondition to a political solution. “It’s up to the Syrian people to determine their own future,” Zebari said Monday. “It’s not up to other countries to dictate to the Syrians what kind of leaders they have or don’t have. I don’t think there will be a call on Bashar to step aside.”

The Sunni Arab regimes most hostile to Assad may use the desire of Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government to be reintegrated with the Sunni-dominated Arab world as leverage to press for more distance between Iraq and Syria — and, by extension, Iran. Still, Annan’s peace plan remains, as Russian president Dmitry Medvedev pointed out on the weekend, the only alternative to a protracted civil war that would be sustained by regional and global strategic competition.

Whether they admitted it or not, Syria’s rebels expected that their uprising would follow one or two recently established neighborhood models: Either, as in Egypt, mass peaceful demonstrations would force the collapse of the regime as the army abandoned the dictator; or, as in Libya, the regime’s brutality against peaceful protest would prompt a turn to arms, and a fight so unfair, and so perilous to the civilian population, that it would prompt foreign intervention to prevent a slaughter and thereby enable a rebel military victory. But unlike Mubarak, Assad has a real social base among the Alawite and Christian minorities, and even the Sunni urban population, all of whom fear of their prospects under a rebellion in which Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood is playing a leading role. The regime’s core military units and its organizational and security spine hasn’t disintegrated; on the contrary, it has shown determination to suppress the rebellion through violence.

(PHOTOS: The Uprising in Syria Rages On)

The threat of an ongoing sectarian civil war that could spread instability throughout the region, as well as the extent of outside support Assad’s camp has received from Iran, Russia and to a lesser extent Iraq, has left Western powers reluctant to repeat the Libya experience. Nobody outside Libya had lifted a finger to save Gaddafi; toppling Assad would be different. His core Alawite constituency would fiercely resist intervention and any new order it produced. And then there was the fact that the Syrian opposition couldn’t manage to sustain even the facade of unity created by the Libyan rebels — the Syrian National Council gathered in Istanbul has suffered repeated splits and ongoing challenges to its legitimacy from local-level activist groups, and it has no authority over the Free Syrian Army, itself little more than an umbrella name for a variety of autonomous local insurgent groups fighting Assad, and subject to challenges from rival military organizations.

Thus the stalemate: The brutality unleashed by Assad’s forces has prevented the hopelessly outgunned rebels from holding any cities and neighborhoods in head-to-head confrontations. But whack-a-mole has failed to eliminate the rebellion, nor does it appear likely to. Instead, rebel fighters are adopting tactics more familiar to the Sunni insurgency in neighboring Iraq, while unarmed protest actions continue in cities the regime deems under control. With neither side able to deal the other a knockout blow, Syria appears destined for a protracted, bloody and increasingly sectarian civil war.

Even in the best-case scenario, it appears likely to follow a trajectory quite different to either Egypt or Libya. That’s why the Security Council and Arab League turned to Annan. Much was made of the fact that last week’s U.N. Security Council statement supporting Annan’s peace plan had Russian and Chinese support. Moscow was “coming over” went the spin, losing patience with Assad. Losing patience, perhaps, but “coming over”? Not exactly. Russia and China vetoed previous Security Council resolutions on the grounds that they required Assad to stand down as a precondition to a political settlement. Moscow and Beijing rejected the principle of the international community imposing regime-change; they threw their support behind Annan’s mission precisely because his plan walked the Western powers back from that demand — the new peace plan requires that both sides cease firing, and calls for talks between the opposition and the regime. Annan’s plan, if fully implemented, certainly enables a peaceful ouster of the regime, but it’s not the starting point. And the different sides will interpret it differently.

(MORE: The Sins of the Opposition: Rights Violations by Assad’s Enemies)

A senior Russian official on Saturday made clear, on Saturday, that Moscow places the onus for stopping the violence on the opposition, demanding that they put down their weapons and negotiate peacefully, implying that Assad can’t be expected to stop his military campaign while state authority is challenged on Syrian territory by armed irregulars. Russian officials have also decried Arab support for rebel fighters. The U.S. and Turkey are giving non-lethal aid to opposition groups, and have once again begun discussing the establishment and protection of a rebel-controlled “buffer zone” in northern Syria — although those options would presumably come into play should Annan’s mission fail.

Embracing the Annan plan poses a massive problem for Assad, because it means accepting the right of citizens to protest peacefully — which might, indeed, create a Tahrir Square type situation in more than one city. But Russian and Chinese support for the plan may leave him no choice. More likely, perhaps, is that each side declares support for the plan, but focuses on those aspects they deem most favorable, and hope the adversary is blamed when things break down. (These two sides are not likely ever to establish a consensus on a democratic transition — Assad’s actions over the past year suggest he has no intention of ceding power.)

But Medvedev warned Saturday that Annan’s plan was “the last chance for Syria to avoid a protracted bloody civil war”. The past year has demonstrated, of course, that such a scenario could see Moscow and Iran backing one side, and Western and Arab powers behind the other — the sort of proxy war that sustained years of bloodshed in the final decade of the Cold War in Afghanistan, El Salvador and elsewhere.

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