Syria "Accepts" UN-Backed Peace Plan
The Syrian government yesterday (27 March) signalled its acceptance of a United Nations plan designed to bring peace to the country.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
The timing of the acceptance of the plan is significant, given that Russia and China, the Syrian regime's only major international allies, have both backed the plan within the last week.
The announcement has been met with understandable international scepticism given Syria's past recent record of breaking its international commitments. Critics see it as a tactical move to buy time to complete the crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
Only time will tell whether the regime is serious about the plan, but as mentioned, past experience is not encouraging in this respect. Moreover, the move is unlikely to bring an immediate end to the violence.
"The Syrian government has written to the joint special envoy Kofi Annan, accepting his six-point plan, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council," Ahmad Fawzi, an aide to Annan announced in statement yesterday (27 March). The plan calls for an immediate end to the violence, the opening up of the country to humanitarian aid, the withdrawal of troops from the streets and the rapid commencement of a meaningful political dialogue between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition. "Mr Annan views this as an important initial step that could bring an end to the violence and the bloodshed, provide aid to the suffering, and create an environment conducive to a political dialogue that would fulfil the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," Fawzi added.
All in the Timing
The timing of Syria's acceptance of the plan is crucial, coming between visits by Annan to the Russian and Chinese capitals of Moscow and Beijing. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev signalled Moscow's support for the plan during a 26 March meeting with Annan, after which he called it "the last chance for Syria to avoid a protracted and bloody civil war." Annan was in China yesterday to seek Beijing's support for his plan—a very likely outcome given Russian support has been secured—making the timing of Syria's announcement accepting the plan more than coincidental. Without their support, Assad's regime would find it almost impossible to continue its crackdown—currently there is every reason to believe that they feel they have a potentially decisive military momentum—at the same time as appearing to be serious about wanting to resolve the crisis in the country peaceably.
Kofi Annan with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing on 27 March.
In this context, the Syrian announcement has been met with widespread international scepticism. "Given Assad's history of over-promising and under-delivering, that commitment [to Annan] must now be matched by immediate actions. We will judge Assad's sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says." United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters yesterday. Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Syria, supported this view as realistic, telling Al-Jazeera: I think Kofi Annan has presented a plan which is extremely general in many of its terms, but it is the first step to pull the various contending parties into a dialogue. But to think that this is going to work quickly or to assume good faith on President Assad's part—no, it is not to be assumed."
However, Arab League leaders gathering in the Iraqi capital Baghdad yesterday were more supportive of the basic premise behind Annan's plan that change and reform must be led by Syrians themselves. "There has to be a political solution, fundamental constitutional and political changes for transfer of power in Syria but through a Syrian-led process," Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters. Syria is expected to be high on the agenda of the Arab League's annual summit, although agreement on further strong action against Assad's regime is unlikely given splits within the organisation.
However, the issue of whether a Syrian-led process can deliver the type of change demanded by the opposition goes to the heart of whether they can accept the precepts and conditions under which the Annan plan has been drawn up. The largest opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council (SNC) tentatively but conditionally welcomed the Syrian announcement, with Basma Kodmani, an executive member of the group saying she "cautiously welcomes the regime's acceptance of the plan". However, she went on to say: "We…continue to say that we need to see Bashar al-Assad step down. That will never change. For this, thousands of people have sacrificed. There is no way that any representative or credible opposition group can say otherwise. What we are saying here is that if this can open the way for a peaceful transition of power, this is what we would like to see."
The SNC and other opposition groups are currently meeting in Istanbul, Turkey in an effort to unite under a common set of principles and objectives designed to boost their credibility with the international community. The notoriously fractious Syrian opposition community has historically found it hard to set aside parochial considerations, and the Istanbul meeting has again laid bare these divisions, with some Kurdish leaders walking out of the conference in protest at the lack of transparency within the SNC.
The Syrian regime's acceptance of the Annan plan will place additional strain on these talks and groups within the SNC. Many opposition leaders are fearful that in accepting the plan, Assad is trying to tempt groups open to forging a pragmatic accommodation with the regime away from the opposition. If he can marginalise the SNC, he can then portray them as the obstacles to peace. Given that this is the likely regime strategy, the SNC's fears that his acceptance of the plan is a purely tactical move to allow him time to complete its crackdown will not recede. Indeed, even if this is Syrian strategy—and the SNC's concerns are very likely shared by Western and UN diplomats—it increases the dilemma for the opposition about whether it too is prepared to accept a plan that does not share its demand that Assad is removed before negotiations take place. In this light, as mentioned, opposition efforts in Istanbul to unite and present themselves as a credible alternative to Assad are even more pressing.
Outlook and Implications
Whether the Assad regime is genuinely committed to the Annan plan and whether it intends to implement it in full will only become clear in the fullness of time, but given the regime's poor commitments to its past obligations, this cannot be assured. In the meantime, it is unlikely that the crackdown or the violence will come to an end. Moreover, attention will now shift to the opposition and its next move and whether it too decides to accept the plan. In this, the potential for the SNC to fracture is high, although the group is likely to delay any decision until the after the next "Friends of Syria" meeting on 1 April, For this potentially critical decision, the SNC will need to carefully gauge the advice of its allies and also their possible responses in the event that the Anna plan fails.
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