At Sunday’s Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul, Western and Arab nations issued a deadline for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to meet the terms of the peace plan proposed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. But the outlook does not look promising for the six-point initiative. The killing in Syria has not stopped, the chances for meaningful dialogue are slim, and the options are narrowing.
Ahead of the meeting, the embattled Assad regime announced that the 13-month uprising had been crushed. It was a ham-fisted PR move, not least because at least 34 people from both sides died on Sunday. In the past year more than 9,000 people have been killed and over 25,000 (that we know of) have fled into Turkey and Lebanon.
This was the second “Friends of Syria” conference in as many months, and it proved to be important ballast to counter the Syrian regime’s arrogance. The opposition Syrian National Council was recognized as the “legitimate representative” of all Syrians, and while Annan’s plan might still be on the table, the decisions by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to fund the opposition must surely demonstrate that as long as the killing continues, supporters of the opposition can take nothing for granted.
The conference concluded that Assad would be judged on his “deeds rather than promises,” but we should not hold our breath. The Arab League proposed a similar plan in November, one that also came to naught. The Annan initiative is also unlikely to yield fruit, if only because it stipulates that Assad would have a role in any negotiations (no doubt included to secure Russian and Chinese support) but the SNC has always maintained that it will never negotiate with the Syrian president, so one wonders how that hurdle will be overcome.
What of the argument peddled by supporters of the Assad regime that the crisis is a Saudi-led, US-backed Sunni conspiracy? It’s an easy claim to make, especially as both Saudi Arabia and Qatar pledged funds to the opposition and have openly called for arming the under-equipped yet brave Free Syrian Army.
A Sunni plot? If supporting co-religionists is a conspiracy, then conspiracy is the modus operandi of the Middle East. But we have known this for centuries. Instead, the focus should not be on who is backing whom, but on what is happening in Syria to ordinary, innocent people. For many, it is easier to issue charges of conspiracy than to face the fact that the regime has embarked upon a deliberate policy of mass murder and repression on a civilian population as it tries to crush a legitimate opposition movement. This is not a government taking on an insurgency (as it would have us believe). This is a regime that is fighting for its survival, and it knows that any compromise will expose the fact that it can only exist through absolute rule. If it’s conspiratorial to get rid of such an entity, then so be it.
Speaking at a ceremony on Saturday to mark the 18th anniversary of the dissolution of the Lebanese Forces, the party’s leader, Samir Geagea, said that the “real solution” in Syria was democracy. He is right, but from what we have seen in the past year, the transition will not come about through a negotiated settlement.
Indeed, the statements of the senior diplomats and leaders in Istanbul were hardly upbeat. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had no option but to conclude that “the regime is adding to its long list of broken promises,” while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted that further pussyfooting by the UN Security Council would force the international community to accept the Syrian opposition’s right to self-defense.
With Russia and China unlikely to bend, there appears to be little wiggle room. Taking up arms may be the only solution. Not fighting will surely lead to more deaths.