Syria: As His Adversaries Scramble for a Strategy, Assad Sets His Terms

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Philippe Merle / AFP / Getty Images

UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan speaks to the press on March 16, 2012 in Geneva after a videoconference briefing of the United Nations Security Council.

That which has not been achieved on the battlefield can rarely be achieved at the negotiation table, and the harsh reality facing Syria’s opposition is that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has not been defeated, nor is it in danger of imminent collapse. Assad has promised, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced Monday, to begin a partial implementation of Annan’s peace plan by withdrawing troops and heavy weaponry from opposition-stronghold cities on April 10. In response, Western powers were left warning of unspecified “consequences” for failure to do so, and citing the history of Assad breaking promises. Skepticism from opposition activists on the ground was hardly surprising, but had little effect — they haven’t exactly been party to shaping Annan’s plan, which in itself is a reflection of their relative weakness in the power equation right now. Formulating a strategy in response to Assad appears to be the role of the Western and Arab powers who’ve backed  the exile-based Syrian National Council, and after last weekend’s inconclusive Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, they don’t appear yet to have achieved a strategic consensus.

The Assad regime may, in fact, be feeling pretty smug: Its foreign adversaries were unable to prevent its brutal pummeling of cities controlled by opposition fighters, which scattered those fighters and forced the rebels to abandon an insurrectionist strategy of seizing control of whole towns in the hope of prompting mass defections that would bring down the regime. It has proved impossible, thus far, for the rebels to hold ground against counter-offensives by regime forces whose advantage in weaponry is overwhelming. Instead, the insurgency is on its back foot, struggling to find the arms and ammunition to sustain the confrontation, and reduced to waging a more diffuse campaign of guerrilla attacks and terror strikes. The regime, meanwhile, has remained largely intact with its core security forces remaining focused and motivated by the sectarian dimension of the war. Nor does the regime appear likely to collapse internally in the near term, even if the repression it has unleashed precludes it restoring long-term stability.

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The Annan peace plan reflects the reality that the opposition and its international backers have been unable to impose terms on Assad on the ground. Western and Arab powers have been forced to walk back from the demand that Assad stand down as a pre-condition for resolving the crisis; Annan’s plan involves a cease-fire, demilitarizing the conflict and creating space for peaceful political opposition, but its key dimension is the recognition that the political negotiations over Syria’s future will be conducted with the regime, rather than after it has been dispatched.

Negotiating with Assad remains unpalatable to the opposition after a year of sacrifice and bitter struggle in which some 9,000 people have been killed, but the opposition hasn’t had a major say in developing the plan — not least because it hasn’t manifested itself in the form of a single, organized body with sufficient strength on the ground to have forced its way into a more dominant position in Annan’s reckoning.

Compromise solutions to violent political conflicts are more likely to be successful when the combatants find themselves locked in a stalemate where each side recognizes that while it can survive the attacks of its opponent, its own attacks are unable to eliminate that opponent. But there’s no such symmetry currently at work on the Syrian battlefield — the rebels remain able to harass the regime, but their attempts to hold territory have largely failed. While it can be militarily pegged back, however, the rebellion’s greater strength lies in its political support — and its best hope may lie in an outcome that allows it to bring that factor more directly into play, which it could certainly do if Annan’s peace plan, which requires the regime to permit peaceful protest, were fully implemented.

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But it’s a safe bet that Assad will seek to implement the deal on his own terms, relying on the political and strategic disarray among his opponents — both domestic and foreign — to shape the outcome. Last weekend’s “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul appeared to confirm that disarray, with a hasty effort by Turkey and Qatar to cobble the fractious exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) into the single legitimate voice of the Syrian rebellion failing to camouflage the doubts among Western powers over whether the group represents a credible alternative with sufficient influence on the ground to warrant  throwing its weight behind the group. Western governments also remain reluctant to support the Gulf Arab powers’ calls to arm the rebels and accept an escalation of what would likely be a protracted civil war, although non-lethal aid has been stepped up and the opposition claimed that the largesse of the oil sheikhs would provide salaries for rebel fighters.

Western powers display a palpable lack of enthusiasm for any strategy of ratcheting up the military challenge to Assad because of the grim prospects and potentially dire consequences across the region. So when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns of “consequences” for failure to implement the Annan plan, the regime can’t but notice that its Western, Arab and domestic foes doesn’t have a coherent plan to bring such consequences to bear.

Assad will likely seek to take advantage of that disarray to implement a version of Annan’s plan on his own terms. Thus the comment by a regime spokesman last Friday that the security forces would not withdraw from cities in which they have operated against rebels until “normal life” had been restored, although others have claimed that the military campaign is largely over and that the regime is simply “mopping up.” Either way, the April 10 date allows for at least another week of that — and, of course, there’s no guarantee that rebel units on the ground will comply, which regime forces would take as a pretext to continue their operations.

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Even if the “Friends of Syria” had agreed on a strategy to reverse the imbalance between the regime and its opponents, such a strategy would take many months to have much effect. It’s not going to happen before the Annan plan goes into effect. And the balance of forces on the ground, and internationally, is such that Annan’s best leverage in persuading Assad to do his bidding is the support of China and Russia for his mission. The Russians, however, have made clear they are sympathetic to Assad’s insistence that a restoration of peace puts an onus on rebels to halt their armed actions. The regime’s game will be to stay onside with Moscow, and Annan may have to devote much of his energy to persuading the Russians to back his vision on implementing the plan.

One way to ensure compliance would be to insert peacekeeping forces, but the regime is unlikely to accept foreign troops on its territory, and it has not been sufficiently weakened to be compelled by international pressure to do so. Much will depend on how it conducts itself in the coming weeks, as it seeks to implement the peace plan on its own terms to ensure that it stays on top. But it remains vulnerable to political opposition. Indeed, the most dangerous aspect of the Annan plan for the regime may be the requirement that it allow space for a resumption of political protest, under international monitoring. Right now, Assad may have more to fear from massive crowds protesting in his cities than he does from insurgent fighters. After all, his forces had opened fire on those protesters long before the opposition turned to arms.

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