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 the Bashar Assad regime and the regime’s use of military force to beat the demonstrators into submission.
The three critical developments are the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia last Friday; the appointment of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan as the joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria; a UN report that essentially accuses Syrian senior officials of crimes against humanity, moving closer to international indictments against them.
The combination of these developments parallels developments on the ground: continued government bombardment of civilian quarters, persistent peaceful mass demonstrations and bouts of increasingly militarised resistance against the regime.
The confrontations on the ground are likely to persist in the broad stalemate that now prevails, with neither the government forces nor the opposition able to defeat the other, but both able to persist for some time.
The continued shift into the diplomatic arena, therefore, seems to be the most significant development these days, as rising international and regional pressure tries to find an effective way to force the government to give in to the demonstrators’ demands.
It is too early to tell if the Annan appointment benefits the Syrian government or the opposition more, as clearly both sides gain from it. The opposition sees it as a tangible sign of international engagement in Syria and the desire to move towards a democratic, post-Assad government 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 UN-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 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.
The UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria report, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, mentioned many alleged atrocities, including killing civilians, bombarding residential areas and torturing wounded protesters in hospitals. The commission also gave Navi Pillay, the UN’s top human rights official, a list of Syrian military and political officials whom it suspected of crimes against humanity.
This kind of credible international documentation of indictable actions and allegations of crimes adds one more form of serious pressure on the regime — but recent history shows that such pressure is unlikely to have an impact on the Syrian government’s behaviour.
It is possible that when Annan discusses these matters with Assad and his top military officials, in private conversations, the Syrians will understand more clearly the dangers they face if they persist in their brutality against civilians.
The Tunis meeting adds to this tightening ring of pressures against the Assad regime, though the dominant sentiment among the gathered state officials and Syrian opposition groups there has been frustration at their inability to bring about any tangible change in Assad government’s actions.
In fact, the more that domestic resistance and Arab-international interventions expand the greater the Syrian government’s military response, so the daily average death toll has inched up in recent months from 20-30 to 70-80 per day.
It has become clear that the kind of regional and international pressure exerted to date cannot force a change in the Syrian regime’s behaviour. We will find out soon if the combination of non-violent and militarised domestic resistance, external pressures and interventions, the spectre of criminal indictments, and the UN-Arab League envoy’s mission can be more successful.
The menu of interventions and pressure 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 mean greater logistical efficacy in managing the resistance against the regime, sharper diplomatic pressure through recognising the unified opposition, and wearing down the morale of the Syrian government and its supporters in the country.
This is probably the most important focus of the Tunisia meeting this past weekend.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Jordan Times on Mar. 1, 2012