While American officials and international diplomats have welcomed Syria’s acceptance of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan’s plan for ending the bloody Syrian uprising, Syria’s move is a ploy aimed at perpetuating the Assad family’s authoritarian Alawite rule in Damascus.
Analysts should not be taken in: By agreeing to Annan’s plan, President Bashar Assad is trying to halt the insurgency’s momentum, further divide the opposition, prevent the West from arming the Free Syrian Army, and give political breathing space to his beleaguered Alawite regime, which to cling to power has already killed over 8,000 Syrians.
What Assad does not intend to do is step aside as president or meet the Syrian opposition demands for representative government, real power sharing, and an end the regime’s brutal, iron-fisted rule.
Annan called Syria’s acquiescence to the plan “an important initial step that could bring an end to the violence and the bloodshed” and which needed to be implemented immediately, , said Ahmad Fawzi, the former U.N. Secretary General’s spokesman.
But that’s just the problem. This “important initial step” is likely to be a non-starter if Assad’s earlier conduct is any indicator. And once he achieves its intended goal of temporarily taking the political heat off Damascus and breaking the protesters’ momentum, the “initial step” is likely to be his last.
Annan’s six point plan begins with a ceasefire -- first by the Syrian government. This is to be followed by a two-hour suspension of fighting each day so that the dead and injured can be evacuated from towns and villages that have been mercilessly pummeled by Syrian army mortars for daring to rise up against the regime. Humanitarian aid is to be provided. The process culminates in Syrian government-led talks to “address the concerns of the Syrian people,” Mr. Annan’s spokesman says.
Assad needed to find a way to break the tightening political noose around his neck, says David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. President Obama, too, Schenker argues, now appears to be looking for a way to climb down from earlier demands that Assad relinquish power.
Clearly, Assad sees the Annan plan as a means of perpetuating his rule, a “step towards regaining international acceptance of his government,” says Joshua M. Landis, a professor and Syrian analyst who once had excellent regime contacts. He, like the opposition, thinks that time is on his side.
The deal comes as international support appeared to be building for the Syrian opposition, despite its deep divisions, radical elements, and occasional feuding with the opposition army which, though poorly armed and led, has nonetheless fought hard against Syria’s security forces.
On Monday, one of the three investigators on a U.N. panel that was documenting killings, torture and other crimes against humanity in Syria, resigned in protest over Syria’s refusal to allow them into the country. Yakin Ertuk, of Turkey, told Reuters that there was “no point” in serving on the panel, whose mandate the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council mindlessly extended Friday through the 47-nation body's September session.
At the same time, Turkey, once among Syria’s closest allies, announced Monday that it was closing its embassy – another indication of the regime’s growing isolation.
Turkey has also been edging towards establishing a buffer zone in northern Syria to protect civilians. Turkish officials concluded that the surge of refugees from Syria might compel Turkey to create such a zone to guarantee not only the safety and welfare of the civilians fleeing violence and repression, but the security of Turkey’s own southern border.
About 60 countries, including the United States, are scheduled to attend another "Friends of the Syrian People" conference in Istanbul on Sunday. But the Obama administration has grown less vocal of late in its support for the Syrian protesters as concerns about the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime’s durability have mounted.
The opposition remains divided and unable to project the kind of unified face and consensus political program that enabled the Libyan opposition to attract such strong, multilateral support.
Concern within military circles has grown about the fate of Syria’s large chemical arsenal should the Assad regime fall.
And lately, influential analysts in Washington, among them, Michael O’Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, have warned that President Assad is likely to ride out the crisis, despite Western-imposed economic sanctions and dwindling international support. -- Only China and Russia have staunchly backed the Damascus regime.
Mr. Schenker warned that even a Muslim-Brotherhood-led Syrian government was likely to be less antithetical to American interests than that of the Assad regime, which is Iran’s sole Arab ally and linchpin in the region. He urged the administration not to retreat from its insistence that Assad must go and revert to what he called in The New Republic “the devil you know” rationale for tolerating the regime, as had seven previous presidents.
The devil we know, he wrote of Assad, has not only slaughtered his own people by the thousands, but encouraged insurgents to cross into Iraq to kill American soldiers.
It has “exponentially increased the capabilities” of Hezbollah by providing the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia and political party with advanced anti-ship and highly accurate M-600 missiles, top of the line anti-tank weapons, and permitted Hezbollah to establish a SCUD base on Syrian soil.
It has meddled and murdered a prime minister and other politicians in Lebanon, harbored and supported militant Hamas, and subverted Iraq. It tried to build a nuclear weapon until Israel bombed its covert reactor in 2007.
“Given the pernicious effect of Assad’s policies on U.S. interests and the region,” Schenker argues, “it’s difficult to imagine that a successor or replacement regime could be worse.”
Judith Miller is a Manhattan Institute Scholar and Fox News contributor. She is a writer and award-winning journalist.