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>> The Daily Star (Lebanon)


The Daily Star (Lebanon) - February 27, 2012

by Rami G. Khouri

Three developments in the past few days suggest that the coming weeks could mark a decisive moment in the struggle for power in Syria, and the tug-of-war between pressure to bring down President Bashar Assad’s regime and the regime’s use of military force to beat the opposition into submission.

The three critical developments are the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia that took place on Friday; the appointment of a former United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, as the joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria; and a U.N. report that essentially accuses Syrian officials, including senior officials, of crimes against humanity, moving us closer to international indictments against them.

The combination of these developments parallels developments on the ground: the continued government bombardment of civilian quarters, persistent peaceful mass demonstrations, and bouts of increasingly militarized resistance against the regime. The confrontations on the ground are likely to persist given the broad stalemate that now prevails, with neither the government forces nor the opposition able to defeat the other, but both also able to endure for some time. The shift into the diplomatic arena, therefore, seems to be the most significant development these days, as governments use rising international and regional pressures to grope for an effective way of forcing Damascus to give in to the demonstrators’ demands.

It is too early to tell if the Annan appointment benefits the Syrian government or opposition more, as clearly both sides gain from it. The opposition sees it as a tangible sign of international engagement in Syria and a desire to move toward a democratic, post-Assad system. The Assad family-dominated government for its part will see this as vindicating its call for dialogue and reform as the way out of the crisis. The U.N.-Arab League statement appointing Annan described his mandate as facilitating “a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people through a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian Government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.”

This wording seems to backtrack on the Arab League’s demand that President Bashar Assad step down and hand over power to his vice president, in order to initiate a transition to more democratic governance. The message is clear: The Assad government is not going anywhere soon, and will use the dialogue window to wear down the opposition and remain in power in some reconfigured form (Assad as Vladimir Putin?). We have to wait some weeks to discover the approach and strategy that Annan will apply, which will be shaped in large part by this week’s two other developments.

A report by the U.N.-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council, has just come out, mentioning numerous alleged atrocities, including the killing of civilians, bombardment of residential areas, and the torture of wounded protesters in hospitals. The commission gave Navi Pillay, the U.N.’s top human rights official, a list of Syrian military and political officials whom it suspects of engaging in crimes against humanity.

This kind of credible international documentation of indictable actions and allegations of crimes adds one more form of serious pressure against the regime. However, recent history shows that such pressure is unlikely to have any impact on the Syrian government’s behavior. It is possible that when Kofi Annan discusses these matters personally with Assad and his top military officials in private conversations, the Syrians will understand more clearly the dangers they face should they persist in their brutality against civilians.

The Tunis meeting has added to this tightening ring of pressures against the Assad regime, though the dominant sentiment among the gathered officials and Syrian opposition representatives there was certainly frustration at their inability to bring about any tangible change in Assad government actions. In fact, the more the domestic resistance and Arab-international interventions has expanded, the greater has been the Syrian government’s military response. The average daily death toll has inched up in recent months from 20-30 victims to 70-80 victims.

It has become clear that the kind of regional and international pressure exerted to date cannot force a change in Syrian regime behavior. We will find out soon if the combination of non-violent and militarized domestic resistance, external pressures and interventions, the specter of criminal indictments, and the U.N.-Arab League envoy’s mission can be more successful. The menu of pressures on the Syrian regime continues to expand steadily, which is not a comforting sign for the Assad family.

Probably the most critical short-term determinant of what happens next is the ability of the many Syrian opposition groups to forge a minimum level of coordination. This is critically important because it would bring about greater logistical efficacy in managing the resistance against the regime, sharper diplomatic pressures through recognition of a unified opposition, and the wearing down of the morale of the Syrian government and its supporters. This was probably the most significant consequence of the Tunisia meeting this week.

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