Gregor Nazarian, who has joined me for the summer as a Middle East Institute intern, writes:
Syria said yesterday that it would allow UN aid workers into the country, as required by the UN/Arab League Annan plan. This is good news, if it happens. But the presence of aid workers will not do much to discourage the Assad regime from continuing to commit atrocities.
The regime’s approach was clear in Assad’s speech on Sunday. He again blamed the violence on “terrorists.” He claimed the new constitution, recently chosen parliament and political dialogue would resolve legitimate issues but struck a defiant tone on armed conflict, declaring that the government would continue to kill its enemies.
There was nothing in the speech indicating any serious intention on Assad’s part to implement the six-point Annan plan. He mentioned it only once, claiming that the Houla massacre was committed by terrorists hoping to sabotage the plan on the eve of Annan’s visit to Damascus and thereby bring about NATO intervention. Syria’s expulsion of Western diplomats (in retaliation for the expulsion of Syrian diplomats) signals that Assad is not planning any near-term compromises.
The humanitarian access to four provinces Assad has announced falls short of the full access the Annan plan authorized. Like the release of 500 detainees last week (release of prisoners is another of Annan’s six points), it is designed only to provide a veneer of cooperation while military operations continue.
Annan’s plan also calls for freedom of access for journalists, freedom to protest peacefully, an inclusive political process, and an end to violence. Assad will likely address each with half-measures, sleight of hand and well-timed gestures. But he will give no ground on the military front. While conceding that some opponents have expressed legitimate concerns, Assad claims to have addressed them with recent window-dressing reforms. He will deal with international pressure in much the same way: by claiming to have addressed the issues, without however making any serious moves.
Assad treats the violence as a separate question. The military conflict is between security forces and terrorists armed and supported by Syria’s enemies abroad:
Terrorists are concerned neither with reform nor with dialogue. . . Not distinguishing between terrorism and the political process is a great error made by some people.
Assad cannot prevent images and videos of atrocities from reaching the outside world. Denying the violence is impossible, so he laments it, blames the terrorists for atrocities and claims to be fighting them. He repeated numerous times in his speech that reasonable political demands had been met, but that terrorism continues unabated and would be fought to the bitter end.
The most striking image in Assad’s speech was that of the Syrian state as surgeon:
Do we condemn the surgeon because his hands are bloodstained or do we praise him for saving a human being’s life?
Of course there was blood on his hands, Assad said, but the killing was for the good of the country. Like a surgeon covered in the blood of his patient, Assad will make the people bleed as he cuts away the tumor of international terrorists from the body politic. Supporters and critics alike, he suggested, should thank him for it.
The rhetorical separation of the political process from the military conflict suggests that Assad will use small political concessions as cover for a continuing military crackdown. Even as we see some progress on the Annan plan, we may not see an end to the real problem: the continuing slaughter of Syrians.
PS: Don’t watch this if you’ve just eaten or don’t want to see the truly atrocious consequences of a war against ordinary people, including many children:
The caption on Youtube reads: “This footage, uploaded by Syrian democracy activists on May 25, 2012, depicts the aftermath of a massacre of around 32 children under the age of 10. They were allegedly murdered by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in the town of Al-Houla in Homs. Dozens were killed by tank and artillery shelling, while according to survivor testimony dozens more were shot or stabbed by Syrian security forces. The relative proportions of each category remain disputed.”