Envoy's role in limbo as diplomacy in Syria is dead


ANALYSIS:THE VETERAN Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has come in to replace Kofi Annan as the new international envoy to Syria even as time has been called on the UN’s much-maligned observer mission. But right now, there is no space for diplomacy in Syria.

The UN monitoring mission which ended its unsuccessful four-month stint last Sunday night was to monitor a peace that clearly never existed.

Annan’s six-point peace plan, agreed to by both rebels and the Syrian regime and which included provisions for the free movement of international media around the country, the withdrawal of the government’s heavy artillery from urban centres and the unhindered right to assemble in public spaces, never got off the ground. Instead, it was used as a tool by the Syrian government.

International diplomatic efforts never had a chance in helping to solve the crisis in Syria and Annan cannot be blamed for having failed.

The plan failed because the rebels do not trust the Syrian regime, with reason. Another reason it failed to get off the ground was because the regime has no interest in peace.

For the rebels, having lost fathers, brothers and sisters to the regime’s brutality, there could be no negotiations until the regime was completely stripped of power. For the regime itself, it never felt serious negotiation was necessary. Both sets of views continue to remain true today.

The Assad regime has never had any intention of taking a diplomatic route to solve the conflict. It has long since chosen the way of the gun in its response to the popular uprising. It has, however, held up its arms claiming it did and will continue to assist the UN mission. As military operations continue in multiple areas around the country, the reality on the ground suggests otherwise.

This is because the Syrian regime still feels it is unmatched in its power, control and popularity and, as a result, it has never felt it must comply with Annan’s peace deal. It should be remembered that because the regime is in complete control of Damascus, its leadership does not feel the end is near.

Inside Syria there is a formidable propaganda campaign at play, convincing many in the main cities that the regime is winning its war, that it has enacted reforms and that it is working in the interests of the country.

State media deftly positioned last week’s bombing of an important security complex in Damascus by the so-called Free Syrian Army as an attack on the UN observers, not the government’s military. It continues to convince many inside the country – particularly the so-called silent majority – by claiming all is fine; for example, state media continue to publish programmes for swimming pool parties and concerts in the capital.

It also gave significant television air time to the operations and activities of the now defunct Arab League and UN missions when they travelled around Syria. The value of doing so, it seems, is to convince Syrians that it is right, just and balanced. The other effect of having the intimidating state television cameras accompany the observers was to ensure the observers never really got the truth from the civilians they spoke to.

The Syrian regime’s plan was to use the government wing – its ministers and their offices – to appear to be abiding by the conditions of the Annan plan while its military wing went on shelling and slaughtering rebels and civilians in other parts of the country. The real power lies in the military and security branches; the government itself is, at this time, little more than an empty, powerless shell.

The truth is Annan’s plan for Syria never had a chance of succeeding because the regime sees the only solution to the crisis through a military lens. It is hell-bent on imposing its will on the 23 million people of Syria and it is for this reason it cannot succeed.

The regime is crumbling, but is determined to take the country down with it. Resorting to bombing dissenting neighbourhoods from afar is probably a sign of the regime’s weakening infantry capabilities, particularly in Aleppo, where it has been engaging in a war of attrition with rebels for the past month.

Today, there are essentially only two army divisions fighting the rebels – the 4th division and the Republican Guard – both overwhelming staffed by Alawite soldiers and security officers.

Diplomacy is dead in Syria, at least until a time comes when the Assad regime finds itself on its knees. Not until the rebel movement has a more formidable military arsenal and has gained control of the two main cities, Aleppo and Damascus, will the Assad regime, now essentially a state-sponsored militia, look to sit down and talk.

Of course, by then it will be too late for President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle.

The international community has made it clear it does not want to dirty its hands in Syria, where the situation is too complicated; it does not really understand the various dynamics at play.

Perhaps this approach is wise: even though a large and growing percentage of the Syrian population now opposes the regime, an even greater number of Syrians oppose direct foreign military intervention. Speaking to Syrians in Beirut recently, I found the sentiment was that even a Libya-style air war on government positions would drive more Syrians to the side of the regime.

Perhaps the thinking behind the appointment of Brahimi as envoy is not to try to establish peace between the two warring sides, but instead to have a point man in place following the inevitable fall of the Syrian regime.

The international community as well as the parties involved in the conflict will look to someone to gather around in the immediate aftermath and in the months that follow as Syria seeks to begin functioning as a proper state again.

Nobody knows when this may be. One thing we can be sure of is that many more Syrians will die before it happens.

Stephen Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising. He will speak at Amnesty International, Fleet Street, Dublin, tonight at 7pm and sign copies of his book

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