The human spirit craves good news. So, it is not surprising that a news wire report that Bashar al-Assad had accepted Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria spread so rapidly. Unfortunately, the celebrations are premature.
What could have been a breakthrough in the circuitous efforts to achieve at least a cease-fire in Syria did not come from President Assad himself. The news actually broke Tuesday far from Damascus, in Beijing, where Annan was meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to confirm that country’s support for his six-point peace plan. Visiting Moscow last Sunday, Annan had secured Russia’s support.
But China and Russia had already joined with the rest of the U.N. Security Council last week in a “presidential statement” blessing Annan’s plan. Though much weaker than a Security Council resolution -- China and Russia have joined in vetoing two of them – their acquiescence in the council’s presidential statement indicated that perhaps their views of the conflict and of Assad were shifting. They are not.
Indeed, even the Arab League, which endorsed the Annan plan at their meeting in Iraq this week and at the Security Council, has moved closer to Assad’s allies. Nowadays, there is barely a mention of Assad’s need to step down from power, which was the call to action issued by the U.S. and the European Union in summer and fall 2011.
Assad's propensity to ignore criticism and recommendations for change while continuing to assault his own citizens is limitless. As his spokesman announced the apparent Syria breakthrough, calling Assad’s response to the plan “positive,” the Syrian leader was touring the neighborhood in Homs that was decimated by his armed forces. And as he viewed the scene, his army was pummeling other Syrian cities.
That in essence has been Assad’s approach for more than a year, unreformed despite his face-to-face meeting with Annan in Damascus a few weeks ago while the brutal siege of Homs was escalating.
The Arab League and U.N. recently asked Annan, who served from 1999 through 2006 as U.N. secretary general, to be their envoy to Syria. His international stature, it was hoped, would help break through the thickening morass that has frustrated the efforts of a growing list of world leaders seeking to negotiate an end to the conflict in Syria.
Assad’s supposed acceptance of Annan’s plan comes ahead of the Friends of the Syrian People conference, which Turkey will host on Sunday. Representatives of some 60 countries are expected to attend, although China and Russia are staying away. The Friends conference, too, likely will endorse the Annan plan.
This latest effort to foster a climate of hope that Assad will cooperate is raising hollow expectations. Assad will foil the Annan plan as effortlessly as he has avoided implementing previous proposals, including an Arab League plan not much different from Annan’s that Assad had agreed to implement. The Syrian News Agency reported this week that the government will not engage any Arab League action so long as Syria remains suspended from the regional group.
Were Assad honestly on board, he would begin implementing at least two of Annan’s six points: Call for a cease-fire, and withdraw all Syrian armed forces from cities across the country. Then, in cooperation with other governments and international relief agencies, establish a mechanism to deliver the humanitarian assistance so urgently needed.
The ball remains in Assad’s hands. Will he play, or drop it once again?
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.