Rami Khouri writes: In the past three months, a variety of countries – Arab and foreign, big and small, friends and foes of Syria – have all performed an ever-evolving diplomatic dance that last week generated a United Nations Security Council statement on Syria that is important for three reasons: It is unanimously supported by all council members, including Russia and China, who had vetoed earlier resolutions critical of Syria’s leadership; it waters down the earlier Arab League that explicitly called for President Bashar Assad to step aside; it seeks instead to halt the violence and open the way for an unspecified process of dialogue and reform leading to a democratic transition that may one day result in a new regime in Syria.
The two previous possible templates for addressing the Syrian situation – the Libyan intervention and war by NATO, and the unilateral Arab and Western demands that Assad step aside and make way for a democratic transition in the country – have both proved undesirable or unfeasible for certain key actors, primarily Russia. The past month has shown that if Russia and China decide to oppose the American-led camp, the situation will remain diplomatically frozen.
The Security Council statement fully supported the peacemaking efforts of U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, and called on the Syrian government and the opposition “to work in good faith with the envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis,” and to fully implement his six-point proposal. This proposal calls for a “daily 2-hour humanitarian pause” in fighting, allowing humanitarian aid agencies access to all areas in need, and committing to working with “an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.”
The Security Council also calls on the Syrian government to “immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers.” It also calls for the release of all detainees, and for allowing foreign journalists to report freely inside the country.
The chance of this package being accepted or implemented by the Syrian government is virtually zero, because it knows very well that if it pulls back its military and stops attacking its own civilians in urban centers, hundreds of thousands of people will take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations against the regime. The important point is that the key global actors have agreed on this approach, to open the door to a peaceful process of political transformation by which Syrians nonviolently and democratically change their regime and install a more democratic system of governance.
A key element in this approach is that President Bashar Assad and his family who run the country will remain in power for now, and are the key party with whom the opposition negotiates. This is understandably distasteful to the opposition, given the extreme cruelty and near barbarism that the regime’s military forces have used against unarmed Syrian civilians for the most part.
Yet if the continued economic and other pressures on Syria make the situation unbearable for the regime (including cutting off travel links and indicting officials in international courts), the Annan plan approach, supported by Russia, may be the only option the regime has. Assad and his family may soon discover that their only two options are the fate of the murdered Moammar Gadhafi of Libya or the retired and perhaps exiled Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.