Syria: As his adversaries scramble for a strategy, Assad sets his terms

Tony Karon writes: That which has not been achieved on the battlefield can rarely be achieved at the negotiation table, and the harsh reality facing Syria’s opposition is that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has not been defeated, nor is it in danger of imminent collapse. Assad has promised, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced Monday, to begin a partial implementation of Annan’s peace plan by withdrawing troops and heavy weaponry from opposition-stronghold cities on April 10. In response, Western powers were left warning of unspecified “consequences” for failure to do so, and citing the history of Assad breaking promises. Skepticism from opposition activists on the ground was hardly surprising, but had little effect — they haven’t exactly been party to shaping Annan’s plan, which in itself is a reflection of their relative weakness in the power equation right now. Formulating a strategy in response to Assad appears to be the role of the Western and Arab powers who’ve backed the exile-based Syrian National Council, and after last weekend’s inconclusive Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, they don’t appear yet to have achieved a strategic consensus.

The Assad regime may, in fact, be feeling pretty smug: Its foreign adversaries were unable to prevent its brutal pummeling of cities controlled by opposition fighters, which scattered those fighters and forced the rebels to abandon an insurrectionist strategy of seizing control of whole towns in the hope of prompting mass defections that would bring down the regime. It has proved impossible, thus far, for the rebels to hold ground against counter-offensives by regime forces whose advantage in weaponry is overwhelming. Instead, the insurgency is on its back foot, struggling to find the arms and ammunition to sustain the confrontation, and reduced to waging a more diffuse campaign of guerrilla attacks and terror strikes. The regime, meanwhile, has remained largely intact with its core security forces remaining focused and motivated by the sectarian dimension of the war. Nor does the regime appear likely to collapse internally in the near term, even if the repression it has unleashed precludes it restoring long-term stability.

The Annan peace plan reflects the reality that the opposition and its international backers have been unable to impose terms on Assad on the ground. Western and Arab powers have been forced to walk back from the demand that Assad stand down as a pre-condition for resolving the crisis; Annan’s plan involves a cease-fire, demilitarizing the conflict and creating space for peaceful political opposition, but its key dimension is the recognition that the political negotiations over Syria’s future will be conducted with the regime, rather than after it has been dispatched.

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