Kofi Annan is right – negotiation is key for Syria
The former UN secretary general Kofi Annan has reason to be proud of the which, as a result of his persuasion and tireless travels to Moscow and Tehran, Turkey and Qatar, came into force on Thursday. It may well be breached here and there – the transition from killing to talking is bound to be messy; the violent emotions of a vicious year-long conflict will not easily be quelled – but it heralds, nevertheless, the beginning of a new political phase of the Syrian crisis.
The international community must be patient and give Annan its full support, because a durable ceasefire is an essential precondition for a negotiated resolution of the conflict – the only alternative to the horrors of an inter-communal civil war (such as was triggered in Iraq by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives).
Several hundred independent observers, mandated by the UN security council, are expected to arrive in within days to monitor events.
Some will undoubtedly be unhappy with this outcome. Those Syrian opponents who dreamed of toppling President Bashar al-Assad – indeed, of putting him on trial and executing him – will be bitterly disappointed. His foreign enemies will be equally put out. This week saw the to the Free Syrian Army – the main, Turkish-based rebel force – of US senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. "This is war," they declared with their familiar belligerence. "" They called for arming the rebels and for foreign air power to defeat the Syrian army.
But Annan is right in declaring that Even armed with weapons from outside, the opposition could not hope to reverse the balance of military power, still overwhelmingly on the side of the regime. To think otherwise is political insanity. The more the opposition resorts to arms, the more the regime will feel justified in crushing it.
Men such as these US hawks and their Israeli allies will not like a settlement that leaves the Syrian regime in place, even though battered, impoverished and destabilised. They are typical of that current of opinion which, from the start, has wanted to overthrow the Syrian regime in order to weaken and isolate Iran, and bring down the whole Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah "resistance axis", seen as the main challenge to US and Israeli supremacy in the Middle East.
Will Assad now have the vision and the will to rise to the challenge created by Annan's ceasefire? He has in recent weeks announced a number of political reforms: the revamped constitution has stripped the Ba'ath party of the political monopoly it has enjoyed for close to half a century; six new parties have been licensed, and parliamentary elections are due to take place on 7 May. Many will dismiss these reforms as window-dressing.
Whatever he does, Assad will not satisfy his diehard enemies. They want his head. But his reforms will need to be a good deal bolder if he is to satisfy even moderate opinion which, while wanting to protect Syria from the destruction, chaos and uncertainties of civil war, will still want a radically different political system put in place. Any such new system will need to be free from the suffocating political controls of the past, free from police brutality and free from crony capitalism.
Urgent ways must also be found to defuse the grievances of Syria's rural poor, victims of the terrible drought of recent years. The urban poor, in turn, have been victims of the failed neoliberal economic model of the last decade, which has benefited an elite but impoverished everyone else. At bottom, the real motor of the Syrian uprising – as in and across the region — has been the government's inability to satisfy the basic aspirations of a rapidly growing population.
It would seem that two immediate moves are now essential. The regime's indiscriminate repression of the uprising has caused deep wounds in Syrian society. Many will vengefully thirst for blood. The president will need to purge some violent men in his security services and set in train a sincere process of reconciliation. Something like a will be required. This might be a further task for Annan.
Another suggestion would be for the president to summon a national congress of leading Syrians, representing all communities and all political views, to debate and agree on the way Syria is to be governed in the future. Such deliberations will inevitably take time. A new Syrian political system, in which power and perks are more equitably distributed, will not be built in a weekend.
Any future regime will also have to devise a way in which Syria – a mosaic of religious communities like its neighbour Lebanon, which requires a degree of mutual tolerance – can integrate a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other even more radical Islamist currents. The Muslim Brotherhood are, very probably, the most powerful and most determined of Assad's opponents. They will not want to negotiate with the regime, nor will the regime want to negotiate with them. Jihadi opponents of all stripes will want revenge for the repression Islamist extremists have suffered in Syria over the past several decades. This is not a problem that will go away.
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