Analysis: Syria's Assad could exploit diplomacy

April 3, 2012 - 2:58 PM
Mideast Syria

Syrians wave revolutionary flags and chant slogans at a night protest against President Bashar Assad in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 2, 2012. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT (AP) — Facing a U.N.-brokered deadline to end the bloodshed in Syria, President Bashar Assad is likely to try to manipulate the terms of the plan to buy more time.

It's a matter of survival: If Assad fully implements a cease-fire and pulls back troops that have been suppressing the year-old uprising, large swaths of the country could slip out of the regime's control.

Assad has little choice but to comply in some way with the April 10 deadline set by international envoy Kofi Annan, in part because his chief backers of Russia and China have given the plan their full support.

Indeed, a Syrian government official said Tuesday that troops have begun withdrawing from mainly calm cities and are returning to their bases. In tense areas, however, regime forces are merely taking positions on the outskirts, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.

The Annan proposal calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and heavy military equipment from populated areas, followed by an overall cease-fire — first by government forces and then by the opposition. The halt in fighting would then pave the way for talks on a political solution.

If the past is any guide, Assad will try to exploit these details.

The regime has agreed to peace deals in the past — only to ignore them on the ground or blame rebels for instigating violence.

This time, the Syrian leader has ample room to maneuver.

Western leaders have pinned their hopes on Annan's diplomatic pressure, with the U.S. and its allies unwilling to get deeply involved in another Arab nation in turmoil. Even though Washington has a clear interest in seeing Assad go, in part because it would be a blow to Syria's ally, Iran, the Obama administration is reluctant to use force.

Several rounds of sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union have done little to stop the bloodshed, and Russia and China are blocking strong action at the U.N. Security Council.

The opposition is weak and divided, wracked by infighting and power struggles.

Regime forces have retaken the major opposition strongholds, the rebels are low on money and guns, and the U.N. has ruled out any military intervention of the type that led to the downfall of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

A plan by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to funnel millions of dollars a month to Syrian rebels could help tip the balance at some point, but details of the money pipeline are unclear.

Against this backdrop, the Annan plan, in some ways, favors the regime by not calling for Assad to leave power, as a previous Arab League proposal demanded. Assad, therefore, would remain the point man for the diplomatic process.

Few observers expect Assad to fully comply with the plan to pull out all his tanks.

The presence of Syrian tanks, along with security forces and snipers, have largely succeeded in preventing protesters from recreating the fervor of Egypt's Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of people camped out in a powerful show of dissent that ultimately drove longtime leader Hosni Mubarak from power.

Still, the Syrian regime has ways to maintain authority even without the military, in the form of pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha" and the fiercely loyal and pervasive security apparatus.

But at the very least, Assad will have to appear to abide by Annan's plan without risking an embarrassing — and potentially dangerous — Tahrir-style sit-in, or losing control over territory that government forces recently recovered from rebels.

While Tuesday's pullout was a start, Assad has shown signs of wavering in his commitment to Annan's demands. After accepting Annan's initial peace plan a week ago, within days the government said it wouldn't be the first to lay down its arms.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi said Friday the government will not pull tanks and troops from towns and cities engulfed by unrest until life returns to normal there. The regime underscored that on Tuesday, only pulling out from some calmer cities.

Now, with the new deadline a week away, the opposition has its doubts.

Bassam Imadi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, asked why the Syrian government didn't stop firing immediately if it was "really honest and is really willing to implement the plan."

"If they are serious about it, if they are honest about it, they would withdraw the forces, stop killing the people," he said.

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Kennedy is The Associated Press chief of bureau for Syria and Lebanon.