Why Syria’s Peace Process is a Continuation of War By Other Means

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Sebastiano Tomada / Sipa

A Free Syrian Army member takes up a position near Idlib, on March 23, 2012.

Skepticism by Syrian opposition groups and their foreign supporters over the Kofi Annan peace plan ostensibly accepted by President Bashar al-Assad is hardly surprising: The plan specifies no timetable or sequence for its cease-fire and political solution to the power struggle that has claimed some 9,000 lives over the past year, and — most galling to the opposition — it doesn’t require Assad to stand down. Assad, moreover, last November “accepted” a plan with many similar provisions, but made sure it was never implemented. There’s no reason to believe he’d have agreed, on Tuesday, to accept Annan’s plan if he didn’t believe it offered him a possibility of ending the crisis while remaining in power. Still, for all its flaws, Annan’s plan is the only game in town. And matching the strongman in playing it might be key to the opposition’s prospects in the weeks and months ahead.

The “Friends of Syria” group of Western and Arab supporters of the opposition will meet in Istanbul on Friday, after corralling the fractious opposition to forge a united statement of principles, establish a more inclusive lineup, and empower the Syrian National Council to negotiate on behalf of the opposition. But while it may boost sanctions against Assad and offer more non-lethal aid to opposition groups on the ground, the Friends group remains unlikely to countenance any moves to send arms to the rebels. And the prospect for foreign military intervention remain remote. Over in Baghdad, where the Arab League is meeting, Saudi Arabia continues to press for a more aggressive strategy of backing the armed opposition, but appears unable to win endorsement from the summit’s host, Iraq. With the regime easily prevailing in the head-to-head military battle on the ground, that leaves the plan formulated by Annan, mandated by the U.N. and the Arab League to mediate. And rather than reject it, the Western powers appear set to press for its implementation on terms and a timetable that block the regime’s current military campaign against opposition strongholds. Assad, meanwhile, will seek to approach the plan on terms that reinforce state authority.

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Annan’s plan does not claim to be a program to reconcile the regime and its opponents or to resolve their differences. Instead, it’s a plan to demilitarize Syria’s power struggle and restrict it to political means. The regime’s goals, and those of its opponents, remain fundamentally irreconcilable: Assad is determined to remain in power, while the opposition finds a consensus that eludes it on so many other issues when it comes to demanding his immediate ouster. What Annan’s plan offers, is a formula for managing that power struggle within rules that limit its capacity to spill blood — in a U.N. supervised cease-fire that withdraws the military from the cities and stands down armed opposition groups, while allowing freedom to protest peacefully and forcing the regime and opposition to negotiate.

Assad has accepted the plan, partly in response to pressure from some key allies such as Russia and China to move toward some sort of political accommodation and reform, and partly because he believes doing so can help create conditions for him to remain in power. “President Assad is looking for a way to end the uprising against his regime without stepping down or turning over power to the revolutionary forces,” says University of Oklahoma Syria specialist Joshua Landis. On the contrary, Assad believes his forces have the revolutionaries on the run through the relentless bombardment that has broken their grip on every major urban stronghold they’ve created, notes Landis, and he sees adopting “the Annan plan [as] a step towards regaining international acceptance of his government.”

The opposition sees Assad’s agenda, and believes he has signaled adoption of the Annan plan simply to buy time while beating down the rebelloin. Hence the reaction of SNC representative Basma Kodmani, who insisted that “A peaceful transition means that the regime needs to be changed. And that starts with the removal of the head of state.” And one Western diplomat speaking anonymously to the Guardian warned that “if a ceasefire [is] achieved without a political process, then Assad could stay in power.”

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Well, yes. The only reason Assad would enter this process is that he believes he can use it to create conditions in which he can stay in power. He’d only cede power if he perceived that he had no choice, but right now, his back is not exactly against the wall. In fact, the only reason the Annan plan has come into being is that the combined efforts of the opposition and its foreign backers has not been sufficient to force out Assad after a year of rebellion in which the U.N. calculates some 9,000 people have been killed. With little prospect of an imminent internal collapse of the regime, and reluctance to fuel a sectarian civil war by arming the opposition, much less to intervening directly, the international community has been forced to accept a new plan that does not, in fact, begin with the removal of Assad. And the regime will be hoping, and working to ensure, that the process doesn’t end with that outcome — even though opposition activists make clear that they will settle for nothing less.

The opposition, if they accept the plan, will also do so reluctantly, because they have been left no alternative by their weakness on the military front and have been pressured to do so by their outside backers. But some may also recognize that the Assad plan, at least as it is written, plays to their strengths by shutting down the armed confrontation while allowing for peaceful protest and political activity. There’s nothing unusual about protagonists entering a negotiation process with mutually antagonistic goals and differing interpretations of what that process requires of them, and of their adversaries. The U.S. and North Vietnam spent four years in and out of negotiations while slugging it out on the ground before reaching agreement on a U.S. pullout — and the two sides had such profoundly different interpretations of what had been agreed that the war raged on for a further two years. Israelis and Palestinians may have agreed on a peace process two decades ago, but that has simply become another theater of their ongoing struggle — one in which the objective is to avoid being blamed for the breakdown made inevitable by the two sides’ irreconcilable differences, in order to keep or win U.S. support.

So, while the Western powers don’t trust Assad’s intentions, they will likely still press the SNC to engage in the Annan process, and push for immediate implementation of those provisions that stay the dictator’s hand. Assad, for his part, believes his forces are in a “mopping up” stage of their campaign against armed opposition groups, says Landis. He doesn’t trust the opposition nor intend to allow it to peacefully oust him, and he’ll approach the Annan process by insisting that the cease-fire begin with rebel groups. And comments last weekend by a senior Russian official putting the onus on the rebels for ending the violence suggest that Moscow and Western powers may also have very different ideas of how Annan’s plan would be implemented.

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The former U.N. Secretary General has clearly recognized the importance of maintaining a consensus between Western and Arab powers, and those that have backed the regime, particularly Russia. Turning the plan from a relatively vague series of principles into an enforceable cease-fire will be a matter of intense struggle in the coming weeks. And it’s one that carries great risk, given the divided nature of the opposition. In any diplomatic process, the regime has the advantage of speaking with a single voice. Even now that the SNC has been reorganized, it remains to be seen whether it represents the local level activist groups confronting the regime on the ground, and the Free Syrian army and its loose collection of local armed units. Lack of coherence in the opposition, moreover, works to Assad’s advantage, if he accepts the deal and the fractured opposition can’t agree to do so in an enforceable way over the disparate groups on the ground doing the actual fighting. That might allow regime to use ongoing resistance as means to sustain its own repression.

What is clear already, however, is that even if the opposition do join Assad in embracing the peace plan, that’s unlikely  to mean that Syria’s civil war is drawing to a close. Instead, it may simply be  entering a new phase.

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