Will Annan Save Assad?

Earlier this week, the Syrian government accepted a peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general. Mr. Annan’s six-point initiative to resolve the crisis in Syria calls for a “political process” to address the Syrian people’s aspirations, a cessation of fighting and troop movements, quicker release of political prisoners, and allowing humanitarian aid, access for journalists and greater freedom of assembly.

Although it is well intentioned, Mr. Annan’s plan won’t end the crisis; it will make it worse.

The plan is an ill-timed lifeline to a murderous regime that will exploit Mr. Annan’s diplomacy to buy time, to reload and to divide the opposition and the international community. In the end, everyone except the Assad family will be weaker for having pursued it.

Every element of the Annan plan is a trap. A cease-fire offers President Bashar al-Assad’s troops time and space to rest and plan; it will also break the momentum of supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army, which has risked much and could easily find its morale and spirit shattered. Humanitarian aid and prisoner releases will allow the Assads to show a gentler face to the outside world without giving up anything significant. Indeed, a cycle of catch, release and catch again is almost guaranteed for opponents of the government.

But the greatest danger is the “political process,” which offers Mr. Assad a get-out-of-jail-free card. It shifts the international community’s focus from getting rid of him to seeing what he will give in the way of political reforms.

We’ve seen this before many times since the Assads came to power. The gap between expectations and delivery is huge. If Mr. Assad’s government — like his father’s, which preceded it — is prepared to kill thousands of its own citizens to stay in power, it’s certainly prepared to be as tough and as uncompromising in any political process.

The Annan plan is the key to an empty room; it will most likely mean an eventual return to conflict on terms that will favor the government, not the rebels. The argument that the opposition will have more leverage once the action shifts from the military arena to the negotiating table is naïve.

There ought to be a diplomatic equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: Above all do no harm. And this is one of those occasions, because the Annan initiative can do plenty of damage.

Mr. Assad is likely to exploit the United Nations’ diplomacy because it is based on a process that doesn’t rule out his government’s staying in power and indeed might ensure that it remains. Suddenly Mr. Assad, a pariah, whom the international community has called on to step down, has become part of the solution.

That is worth its weight in gold to a regime that is fighting to survive. Indeed, it reduces the chances of an internationally mediated transition in Syria. And that’s the way the Assads want it: a Syrian solution to a Syrian problem.

The international community wants a way out of this nightmare without having to take risks, let alone undertaking military action. Many countries, including the United States, are understandably embarrassed by their own unwillingness to act in the face of a death toll that is now approaching 10,000.

The Annan plan perversely begins to let everyone off the hook. It relieves the Russians and the Chinese of the stigma of backing a brutal regime and gives them a seat at the table; it also relieves pressure on Turkey, which has been considering creating humanitarian zones along its border with Syria and possibly intervening. It even relieves pressure on Washington to act.

There is no doubt that the Obama administration has a huge stake in seeing Mr. Assad fall; it would help constrain Iran, a key Syrian ally. But Mr. Obama is extremely reluctant to use force, as NATO did in Libya. With an election looming, his motto is “not now” on tough issues like Iran, Syria and North Korea. And who could blame him? He’s trying to get out of military adventures abroad, not get into them. And he’s right to avoid an effort on Syria that isn’t multilateral, internationally sanctioned and well thought through. The problem is that there just doesn’t seem to be an effective middle ground between military action and Mr. Annan’s diplomacy.

The Annan plan also carries real risks for a Syrian opposition that is already fractured and divided both inside and outside Syria. It’s challenging enough for rebels to fight over the spoils after deposing a dictator; it’s quite another matter to remain unified while the government is still in power using every resource it has, including bribes and threats, to play internal politics.

The tragedy of Syria is that the options for a peaceful resolution run from bad to worse. The Arab Spring and its aftermath have offered up three models for change: the Egyptian and Tunisian model, where the military stands aside and the people prevail; the Libyan model, where outside actors aid rebels in getting rid of the government; and the Yemeni model, where a combination of diplomacy and a badly wounded autocrat lead to a negotiated solution.

None of these seem to offer much hope for Syria now. Unlike in Egypt, the regime will hang together (knowing they’ll hang separately if they don’t). Unlike in Libya, the great powers have no stomach yet for military intervention. And unlike in Yemen, Mr. Assad will not be eased out with promises of immunity, certainly not when there’s a possibility that the Annan plan will make him kosher.

Whatever Syria’s future, it does not lie in a diplomatic process that strengthens the government, weakens the opposition and makes the international community complicit in resurrecting a cruel dictator.

In the end, the Annan plan will fail because Mr. Assad will not surrender power, and he has already inflicted too much pain, death and cruelty on the Syrian people to ever convince the opposition that he will.

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of The Much Too Promised Land.

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