The international community that seemed so keen to intervene in Syria in November and December is now doing everything it can to avoid a confrontation with the Assad regime. While Russia and China usually take the blame for the reticence, Turkey, once among the most aggressive backers of intervention, has backed off. The Obama Administration has signaled, clearly, that military intervention in Syria --- be it through a no-fly zone or through an arming of insurgents --- is off the table.
The response to the crisis in Syria now revolves around two factors: 1) is there an international coalition that has a unified plan to intervene, and does that coalition have legal grounds to do so?; 2) is the opposition united enough to merit the removal of the Assad regime?
This week there was big news on both fronts. The Syrian National Council, the most visible of the opposition groups, was beset by disunity, walkouts, and more than enough struggles to jangle the nerves of a global audience. Then there Tuesday's announcement that Kofi Annan, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, had brokered a "peace" deal with President Assad government, with the Syrian National Council giving cautious support.
However, as the song goes, "Peace sells, but who's buying?" Syria watchers around the world were in disbelief when Annan forecast the outcome of a political solution. After all, this is (at least) the third time that Assad has agreed to end attacks on his own people. Days after the conflict started in March 2011, Assas lifted Syria's decades-old emergency laws; within 48 hours, his forces had killed dozens of people nationwide, sparking even larger protests. In November, the President agreed to an Arab League deal and pledged to withdraw his troops from his cities. That day, there were no reports of troops and tanks pulling back; by the second day it was clear that the Syrian military was launching renewed offensives leading to the deaths or dozens of civilians.
This time Assad agreed to Annan's peace deal on Tuesday, but by this morning dozens had been killed at the hands of security forces, according to activists, and the violence continues without pause. One conclusion: agreement to the plan just buys Assad more time to weaken the opposition, as well as the will of the international community to act.
So is Annan stupid or naive? Not the former, possibly the latter, but in addition, his peace plan is a reflection of the lack of current will for international intervention. Washington is scared of a post-Assad Syria (Obama may be "more flexible after the election"), Turkey and France are now gun-shy, and there remains that sticky issue of legality without unanimity in the UN Security Council.
"Peace" is not a realistic goal, it is a stalling tactic. The UN needs to prove that negotiating with the Assad regime is pointless, the US needs to prove to its people (i.e. voters in an election year) that the opposition is better for regional stability than the current regime, and the Syrian National Council needs to unite.
Is there any chance of progress? Well, today we learned that all but one of the major opposition groups has agreed to unite behind the SNC. And it is being asserted that the internal differences in the SNC may have less to do with sectarianism or strategy and more to do with post-Assad politics.
This week, EA Worldview interviewed prominent Syrian activist Shakeeb Al-Jabri. According to Jabri, the unrest in the SNC has less to do with democracy and has more to do with politics: "In the past two months things inside the body have been recalibrated, but the Secretariat and the Executive Committee are still the same (in structure, obviously they are missing a few people now)."
Jabri asserts that the main problem for the SNC is an internal power struggle. This week, prominent Syrian activist Haitham al-Maleh stormed out of the Souncil because " the SNC had assumed too much dominance and failed to let other activists have their say". He said the organisation is out of touch with Syria and is not democratic. However, according to al-Jabri, the divisions are not as dramatic:.
They can't fit everyone into the Executive Committee, and and the Executive often makes decisions without consulting the Secretariat. Meanwhile the General Assembly members gave up and each is doing his own thing, under the SNC label.
Maleh left because he is not getting enough say.
This rings true. The Alawites and Christians in the SNC have not been the ones who have voiced recent concerns. While there have been issues with the Kurdish leadership, the protests in Kurdish regions of Syria have grown exponentially in recent months, with an even more dramatic surge in protests in the last several weeks. The divisions in the Council are no longer about sectarianism, nor are they rooted in disagreements over strategy --- the SNC followed other groups in calling for foreign intervention earlier in March. These tensions are more likely the outgrowth of politics for position, with Maleh's own admission that he is planning on being Syria's next President.
The Syrian National Council appears to have backed the peace plan to placate the international community and to buy time until it is better organised. If the regime fails to live up to its agreements, more pressure can be brought on Russia and China to agree to harsher measures against Damascus. This approach may not work, but without an international consensus to intervene, the opposition doesn't have a lot of options.
So this UN peace agreement just bides time for all parties involved. With every passing day of that biding-time, more people die, more people protest, and the conflict appears to be further away from resolution, not closer. Jabri sums up the question that is on the minds of the entire opposition, and most of the observers of this conflict:
The peace plan? I'm just wondering how long Assad has before Annan agrees his plan didn't work."