Last Updated: Sat Apr 14, 2012 14:45 pm (KSA) 11:45 am (GMT)

The critical element in Syria

Rami G. Khouri

United Nations Security Council resolutions and unanimous “presidential statements” are a lot like New Year’s resolutions: sincere, well-intentioned, grounded in reality, responding to real needs and aspirations, but really difficult to implement.

The latest example is this week’s council presidential statement supporting special envoy Kofi Annan’s call for a total ceasefire in Syria on April 12.

Of the several different but linked issues at play here, three stand out that will determine the fate of this initiative: the capacity of the UN Security Council to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state, the Syrian government’s sense of its own durability, and the capacity of the opposition to challenge and change the Damascus government and its ruling power elite.

Of the three, my impression is that the critical factor will be the ability of the various opposition groups to form a more coherent and coordinated movement to change Bashar Assad’s regime, drawing on the substantial support they have generated in the Middle East and around the world to assist them in their goal.

I say this because recent history suggests that the iron wills of the Security Council and of stubborn sovereign governments tend to balance out each other.

If military force is employed, as in Kosovo or Libya, global coalitions of states can oust governments. Barring that, only the determination, efficacy and sacrifice of authentic indigenous movements for freedom and citizen rights, coupled with global political support, can topple governments and usher in more democratic rule, as perhaps Myanmar demonstrates these days.

The UN Security Council has recently coalesced around a political position that calls for ending the fighting by all sides and shifting to a negotiated political transition in Syria. This leaves open the fate of the Assad family and regime, which is why Russia, China and others — who rejected earlier Arab League- and American-led moves to demand that Assad leave office — accept this position.

This serious global intent does not guarantee all parties’ compliance with the Security Council demands. Showing seriousness and determination that transcend even United States UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s dramatic frowns and glares, the council also warned of “further steps”, should the Syrian government persist in its assault on Syrian civilians.

The Syrian government and the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition have agreed to the terms of Annan’s peace plan, which is fascinating, but not necessarily much beyond that for now.

The SNC is very much the junior partner in this process, given its limited military capability in the face of the government’s massive use of force. Even with the financing that is now coming to its forces from Saudi Arabia and others, the SNC military wing can operate only in the realm of limited guerrilla attacks.

Despite many accusations, nobody has presented convincing evidence of Qaeda-like Salafist militants, who are also said to be fighting the regime, including perhaps by setting off explosions in major cities.

The reality of the Assad regime’s response to domestic revolts since the early 1980s has been very clear: smash the opposition and punish their towns and neighbourhoods, so they never dare to revolt again. This is one important way in which Syria is different from other Arab revolutions.

When Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali faced a popular revolt in Tunisia, he fled the country. When Hosni Mubarak of Egypt faced a revolt, he sent a bunch of camel-riding thugs to Tahrir Square to quell it. When Assad faced a revolt, however, he unleashed thousands of tanks, artillery, snipers, torturers, rapists and roaming killer gangs across the entire country.

Assad’s track record since April 2011 has been consistent and unambiguous: strike hard to punish demonstrators and deter their supporters, and engage in any available diplomatic process only as a secondary track.

Assad’s problem is that his strategy of using extensive force, reflecting his father’s legacy from the 1970s and 80s, no longer works. The more he assaults and ravages his largely unarmed civilian demonstrators who challenge his legitimacy the greater the intensity and breadth of the revolt, and the parallel support for removing him from around the region and the world.

It is still unclear, though, how that rising determination among millions of Syrians to change their government system will translate into practical political assets that actually could end Assad family rule.

This is the key to change in Syria. Actions from abroad, including unanimous U.N Security Council decisions, can only succeed if they enhance the domestic opposition’s ability to whittle away the regime’s bases of support, especially through economic pressure that reduces the regime’s ability to pacify the population and pay its supporters.

The two consensus Security Council statements following the approval of the Annan mission indicate that international political and diplomatic moves will continue to pressure the Assad regime, but that this will only be a complementary arena to the more significant ability of the Syrian opposition movements to undermine the regime from within.

(Rami George Khouri is a Palestinian-Jordanian and U.S. internationally syndicated political columnist and author. This article first appeared in Jordan Times, Apr 12,2012)

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