We are coming to a critical and delicate moment in the diplomacy about Syria. The Annan peace plan, which does not call explicitly for Bashar al Assad to leave power, has gained Arab League and UN Security Council backing. Bashar has said he accepts it. The Syrian opposition has not.
They are going to get their arms twisted, hard. The clear signal comes from David Ignatius, who argues in this morning’s Washington Post that they should go along with the deal. This is the opening salvo in what will no doubt be an intense U.S. government effort to convince the Syrian National Council and anyone else who will listen to go along. There is a strong likelihood that the pressure will split an already fractious opposition.
Ignatius simply assumes that the Annan plan will lead to the departure of Bashar. That is where the opposition, and the United States, have to be very careful. So far as I can tell, the Annan plan addresses this question only obliquely, by requiring that the Syrian government work with the UN envoy
in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people
I have been a supporter of Annan’s efforts, but I have to confess that this is a very weak reed on which to hang anyone’s hopes for a serious political transition. That Bashar al Assad needs to step aside in order “to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people” may be perfectly obvious to me. But it is not obvious to Bashar, who has repeatedly claimed that he understands and expresses the aspirations and concerns of the Syrians.
This of course is the issue that precipitated the Russian and Chinese vetoes of Security Council resolutions. Neither Moscow nor Beijing wants to be seen as carrying out regime change in Syria at the behest of the West or the Arab League.
The question is whether they are prepared to do it, even if they are not prepared to say it out loud. There is a big question mark here, one that the Syrian opposition needs a clear answer to, at least in private, before it signs on. Washington needs to help them get that answer and be prepared to guarantee it will happen.
The rest of the plan is a re-hash of things Syria has already agreed to do, and then not done: stop fighting, cessation of hostilities, pullback of the Syrian army and heavy weapons from population centers, deployment of UN monitors, humanitarian assistance, release of detainees, access for journalists and respect for free association and the right to demonstrate.
Opinion on whether Bashar can be made to comply with the plan this time is split. I don’t really think there is any possibility he will if he stays in power. His removal is a prerequisite for the Annan plan to have a chance to work. But he is feeling buoyed by recent military success, even as it becomes clearer with every passing day that his regime has lost legitimacy with the vast majority of the Syrian people.
There’s the rub: it is more than time for him to go, but he clearly intends to stay.
PS: Here is footage of a Syrian government helicopter allegedly rocketing ‘Azaz near Aleppo on March 25. If anyone in the Obama administration is looking for a reason to impose a no-fly zone, here it is: