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No quick exit for Assad under Annan's Syria plan

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad delivers a speech at Damascus University, in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012.


The key to the success of Kofi Annan's Six-Point Plan unveiled today lies in what is not said in the scheme: At no point does the plan call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down or delegate power.

This is in sharp contrast to earlier Arab League proposals, endorsed by the UN Security Council, that were far more judgmental and called for Mr. al-Assad to cede at least some of his powers to his vice-president in order to negotiate his transition from office.

Instead, the Annan plan calls only for a commitment by Syria to stop the fighting, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach victims, to release detainees more quickly, to allow journalists into the country, to respect freedom to demonstrate peacefully and to initiate a dialogue for political reform.

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Even those points are gently worded. For example, Syria "should" cease troop movements toward population centres and "should" end the use of heavy weapons, and should "begin" the pullback of military concentrations. All this leaves ample room for Syrian interpretation.

As for negotiating Syria's future political system, the Annan points call only for Syria to "commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the envoy [Mr. Annan]"

All this makes the scheme much more acceptable to Mr. al-Assad and to his allies in Moscow and Beijing, all of whom rejected the idea that Damascus was getting all the blame and the opposition militants none at all.

Getting all these people to sign up was deemed necessary as a starting point by Mr. Annan, and as acceptable by Washington, London and Paris, the other permanent members (along with Moscow and Paris) of the Security Council.

Indeed, people with personal knowledge of Mr. al- Assad say such an approach is the only way to bring about political reform, including democratizing the presidency, and pushing Mr. al-Assad to step down.

A former senior Syrian official, now critical of the regime, says Mr. al-Assad will never just leave office and hand the keys over to the opposition. "It's unrealistic to expect that," the former official said recently. "There would be chaos."

Instead, the President would be willing to negotiate a transition "over time" to a democratic process that would provide for election of a government and of a president. As well, these insiders say, Mr. al-Assad will have to guarantee the safety of and support from the only country he can rely on: Russia. With Moscow's agreement this week, that now appears to be forthcoming.

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But what makes the Kofi Annan plan appealing to Mr. al-Assad makes it hard for the opposition to swallow.

The Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army, among others, have insisted they will never talk to Mr. al-Assad, and never agree to take any steps toward ending hostilities until he's gone.

To offset that negative reaction, the Annan Points also go easy on the opposition.

Crucially, they call for the Syrian forces to make the first move in halting the fighting – a significant concession by the Assad regime that had insisted on mutual cessation – and they do not compel the opposition to do much of anything in this regard.

They say only that commitments from the opposition to stop fighting and accept UN supervision "would be sought by the envoy."

However, as an incentive for the opposition to make such a commitment, the plan offers incentives: specifically, a two-hour humanitarian break in government fighting each day, and the possibility of an accelerated rate of release of opposition members jailed by the government.

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It just might be enough to entice a representative number of opposition people to sign up for this plan, and defer their hopes for Mr. al-Assad to step down at a later date.

Mr. Annan said Tuesday that acceptance of the plan is merely "an important initial step" that "could bring an end to the violence and the bloodshed, provide aid to the suffering, and create an environment conducive to a political dialogue that would fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people."

The success of the plan now depends on the opposition's acceptance and implementation of it. It's likely that at the conference of Friends of the Syrian People, meeting Sunday in Istanbul, world powers will be pushing for the opposition to go along with it.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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