Tony Karon writes: Skepticism by Syrian opposition groups and their foreign supporters over the Kofi Annan peace plan ostensibly accepted by President Bashar al-Assad is hardly surprising: The plan specifies no timetable or sequence for its cease-fire and political solution to the power struggle that has claimed some 9,000 lives over the past year, and — most galling to the opposition — it doesn’t require Assad to stand down. Assad, moreover, last November “accepted” a plan with many similar provisions, but made sure it was never implemented. There’s no reason to believe he’d have agreed, on Tuesday, to accept Annan’s plan if he didn’t believe it offered him a possibility of ending the crisis while remaining in power. Still, for all its flaws, Annan’s plan is the only game in town. And matching the strongman in playing it might be key to the opposition’s prospects in the weeks and months ahead.
The “Friends of Syria” group of Western and Arab supporters of the opposition will meet in Istanbul on Friday, after corralling the fractious opposition to forge a united statement of principles, establish a more inclusive lineup, and empower the Syrian National Council to negotiate on behalf of the opposition. But while it may boost sanctions against Assad and offer more non-lethal aid to opposition groups on the ground, the Friends group remains unlikely to countenance any moves to send arms to the rebels. And the prospect for foreign military intervention remain remote. Over in Baghdad, where the Arab League is meeting, Saudi Arabia continues to press for a more aggressive strategy of backing the armed opposition, but appears unable to win endorsement from the summit’s host, Iraq. With the regime easily prevailing in the head-to-head military battle on the ground, that leaves the plan formulated by Annan, mandated by the U.N. and the Arab League to mediate. And rather than reject it, the Western powers appear set to press for its implementation on terms and a timetable that block the regime’s current military campaign against opposition strongholds. Assad, meanwhile, will seek to approach the plan on terms that reinforce state authority.
Annan’s plan does not claim to be a program to reconcile the regime and its opponents or to resolve their differences. Instead, it’s a plan to demilitarize Syria’s power struggle and restrict it to political means. The regime’s goals, and those of its opponents, remain fundamentally irreconcilable: Assad is determined to remain in power, while the opposition finds a consensus that eludes it on so many other issues when it comes to demanding his immediate ouster. What Annan’s plan offers, is a formula for managing that power struggle within rules that limit its capacity to spill blood — in a U.N. supervised cease-fire that withdraws the military from the cities and stands down armed opposition groups, while allowing freedom to protest peacefully and forcing the regime and opposition to negotiate.