There was something nauseating in Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s recent comments that the plan currently being peddled by Kofi Annan, the Arab League-United Nations envoy on Syria, represents the last chance to avert a Syrian civil war.
Medvedev knows that Russia has been greatly responsible for escalating the violence in Syria, sending weapons and advisers to help President Bashar Assad repress his own people. Diplomatically, however, the Russians are paying no price. In fact, they’re making headway.
The outgoing Russian president isn’t alone. Annan’s six-point plan has been picked up by the international community as the way to resolve the Syrian crisis. That the plan is awash with ambiguity, so that each government can interpret it advantageously, has been its strongest point. However, imprecise plans are usually easier to market than to execute. Annan’s scheme is no different.
The former United Nations secretary-general has put together a package that includes kick-starting a Syrian-led process of negotiations “to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people”; a commitment by all sides to end the fighting, under U.N. supervision; the provision of humanitarian assistance to areas affected by combat, including implementation of a two-hour humanitarian pause to allow this; intensification of the “pace and scale” of release of “arbitrarily detained persons,” as well as identification of their place of detention and authorization to visit such facilities; agreement to grant freedom of movement throughout Syria to journalists; and respect for “freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.”
The Syrian regime has accepted this proposal, and one can immediately see why. It ensures that Assad will remain in office to bargain with the opposition in the “Syrian-led process.” In that way, Annan has effectively undermined an Arab League plan demanding that the Syrian president step down and surrender power to his first vice president. Annan’s plan also buys the Syrian security services more time to suffocate the uprising, since it will take weeks to bring all the machinery in place, not least a sizable U.N. observer team.
And last but not least, it gives Assad considerable leeway to dance around the wording. Two examples: Who defines what an “arbitrarily detained person” is? The Syrians will argue that those arrested broke Syrian law, and it’s not clear what authority, let alone information, the U.N. will have to disprove this. As when it comes to freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully, what does the caveat “as legally guaranteed” tagged onto the end imply? If the Syrian regime deems a demonstration illegal under its laws, what happens then? Anticipate endless bickering over the details, and don’t expect Russia and China to contradict Assad in these disputes.
The most contentious aspect of the plan is that Assad stays in place. It’s remarkable that some Western observers regard the Annan project as a mechanism for ousting the Syrian president. On this page, for instance, David Ignatius writes that it “could open the way toward a ‘soft landing’ in Syria that would remove Assad without shattering the stability of the country.” And yet Annan’s plan is but a modestly reinforced version of an Arab League plan from last November – one also accepted by Damascus – that hardly weakened Syria’s president.
We should have no illusions. Russia and China consider the Annan plan a formula for saving Bashar Assad, not getting rid of him. The most ridiculous claim in the past two weeks is that Moscow and Beijing have softened on Syria, and proved this by moving closer to the Americans and the Europeans in the Security Council, where they signed on to a presidential statement backing Annan’s mission.
The truth is that it’s the Obama administration and its European partners that have adopted the Russian and Chinese perspective. When President Barack Obama says that Assad will fall, that’s empty oratory destined to keep Syria at arm’s length during an election year, and avoid accusations that the U.S. president is soft on mass murder. But Obama’s focus is elsewhere. He prefers to subcontract Syria to regional states, even to the feckless Russians, so that he can pursue America’s strategic reorientation away from the Middle East.
The Russian calculation is that if Assad can begin negotiations with the opposition, he will prevail. The different opposition groups will be divided, with some endorsing talks and others rejecting them, permitting the Syrian regime to select its interlocutors. Those who say no to Annan’s offer, Moscow believes, will lose international legitimacy. Once the situation is calmer, the Syrian president will reassert his writ, isolate his foes, introduce cosmetic reforms, and perhaps even integrate opposition figures into a government that otherwise has no margin to challenge the Assad-led security order.
The problem is that most Syrians are wise to the dangers of Annan’s plan. Many prefer civil war to more Assad rule, compounded by barbarous retribution if the Syrian president regains his grip. Annan wants Assad’s victims to cede to their president the latitude to subjugate them for years to come. The provisos in his project manufactured in New York won’t change that. Annan’s six points offer only generalities to defend the Syrian people, with no valid implementation mechanism, and no penalties if Assad ignores the conditions.
That is why Annan’s endeavors will likely accelerate a military conflict. The Syrian opposition will refuse to deal with their killer; those who do so will be marginalized. As many Syrians observe the international community endorsing the Russian and Chinese position; as they realize that Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy are patent hypocrites; and as they witness outsiders, including Syrian exiles hostile to the Assad regime, maneuvering without consulting them, they will become more frustrated and angry, and they will purchase weapons. There will be war, all because no one dares show Bashar Assad the exit.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.