What a shock it must have been for Kofi Annan to realize that the Syrian regime and opposition agree over nothing except to largely ignore his splendid little plan for ending the conflict in Syria.
Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy, is no naïf. He did what all good diplomats do: He added a splash of reciprocity, a pinch of incentives, an aroma of consensus, and presto, he presented us with a more refined version of a failed Arab League plan crafted last November. The core of the Arab proposal was that the Syrian regime should withdraw its forces from cities, put an end to its violence against protesters, release prisoners, and begin a dialogue with the opposition. Yet President Bashar Assad could never implement such a plan, since it would encourage millions of Syrians to go out into the streets and call for his head, without fear of retribution.
When Annan took over, he did concede something to Assad, namely the latitude to lead negotiations with the opposition, and in that way regain a measure of legitimacy. This was a retreat from the Arab League project of last January, which called upon the president to step down and hand over power to his vice president. The envoy brought the Russians and Chinese on board to pressure Assad, but it was Annan’s obligation to understand that the dynamics of the situation made implementation as impossible today as it was last November.
Once Assad starts loosening his military grip on society, he will be finished. He has promised to respect a cease-fire as of April 10, but still hopes to beat the Syrians senseless to earn himself a breather and transact from a position of strength, with an opposition he selects. But that ambition is going nowhere. It took a month for his army to crush Baba Amr, which involved deploying elite units. Yet Homs is far from pacified, let alone the provinces of Idlib, Damascus and Deraa.
Assad rule is crumbling. The regime is on a conveyor belt of repression, and will be overwhelmed if it stops. Annan sought, somehow, to do two things simultaneously: neutralize the fighting on the ground while creating an environment that would facilitate the removal of the Syrian president through peaceful means – a “soft landing” as some have described it. However, that did not make a good plan. In fact, it has made a plan so unrealistic that neither Assad nor the Syrian opposition has any intention of implementing it.
The most contentious facet of Annan’s plan was that he seriously expected the opposition, after the slaughter by the Syrian army and security forces of between 10,000 and 15,000 people, to sit at the same table with the individuals responsible. The opposition is divided, but groups willing to engage with Assad are well aware that they would be discredited if they actually did so. In other words, Annan’s call for an inclusive Syrian dialogue was unrealistic, and his goal of accelerating prisoner releases and widening the opposition’s margin to demonstrate against the regime was unworkable.
The envoy’s efforts were shaped by the fact that Russia held the diplomatic initiative when he took over his post. And the Russian priority is to force the opposition to lay down its weapons. The Obama administration, meanwhile, is shifting with the political winds – one day endorsing the Annan plan, which seeks to end the fighting; the other, agreeing with participants at the Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul last weekend to fund and dispatch aid to the armed Syrian opposition, which will prolong the fighting.
What is the way out? Already late last year, when the Arab and international diplomatic maneuvers over Syria began, it was plain that Assad was finished. The sole basis for a comprehensive solution is his departure into exile, with his family, followed by negotiations leading to a smooth transition of authority. Anything else is a waste of time, and Annan’s stumbling project has again shown us why.
The conventional wisdom is that the Russians will oppose this. We can speculate that Annan offered a plan that he knew would falter to satisfy the Russians, in order to then press a more achievable alternative once Moscow saw that its initial preferences could not be realized. Or that may be too clever by half. There is no doubt, however, that Russia is the key to a changeover in Syria, and that once Assad loses Russian backing the game will be up for him. That’s why Annan would be better off focusing on how to persuade Moscow that Syria’s current regime is quite simply unsustainable, and that Russia could have an important role to play in a new Syria. The envoy might also reassure the Russians by furthering contacts between their representatives and those of the Syrian National Council, which for better or worse is the only broad-based coalition the Syrian opposition has.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned this week that the Syrian opposition would never defeat Assad’s army. It doesn’t need to. If it manages merely to impose a military status quo and hold territory, Assad’s options, and Moscow’s, will shrink. It’s hard not to believe that the Homs offensive received a Russian green light, explicitly or implicitly, along with a fresh supply of heavy weapons and ammunition. That is why Istanbul was a success in rejecting Moscow’s efforts to deactivate the Free Syrian Army.
The single workable strategy for Annan is to explicitly push for regime change in Syria, and to convince Russia that there is no substitute. The Russians must sense that it’s time for Plan B in Damascus. Their guy is not gaining. He has to keep killing just to avoid being killed.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.