Syria: First Round of a Ceasefire

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A general view of buildings, which according to the opposition were damaged by the government's army, at Juret al-Shayah in Homs 14 April 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Khaled Tellawi - Shaam News Network - Handout)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Syrian crisis is reaching a point similar to what Lebanon witnessed in the first few months of its long civil war. The period known as the “two-year war” included numerous Arab and international initiatives.

The Vatican was there with Cardinal Paolo Bertoli, followed by Monsignor Mario Brini; the French with Maurice Couve de Murville then Georges Gorse; the Americans with Dean Brown; the Arab League with its General Secretary Mahmoud Riad; and finally the United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim.

The Libyans sent their Prime Minister Abdessalam Jalloud. The Egyptians, Iraqis, Saudis, and Kuwaitis were also there, hiding behind their ambassadors in Beirut.

The mother of all mediators, and the strongest by far during these two years and later, was Syria. The other negotiations happened with or around Syria. They reached numerous ceasefire agreements, followed by relative stability, and national dialogue. Then they would all collapse, time after time.

Similarly, a few weeks into the crisis, Syria witnessed many mediations involving – just as in Lebanon – countries concerned about the situation. They called for reform and dialogue but, at the same time, provided both sides with funds and incitement or weapons and fighters.

This was what the Syrians, Iraqis, Algerians, Libyans, Saudis, and Kuwaitis did in Lebanon, in addition to Israel.

The same thing is being done in Syria today by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. To a lesser degree comes the involvement of Iraq, Jordan, and some Lebanese.

They are supported by the French and the Americans. Their respective ambassadors to Damascus had incited against the regime and provided information, equipment, and communications devices to the opposition.

At the same time, Russia provided the regime with maps, experts, aerial photographs, weapons, ammunition, and the needed cover for its continuity.

Although the international community is acting on the Syrian issue with dynamism and extensive effort at levels higher than at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, no one seems in a hurry to reach a political settlement in Syria.

They accompany Syria, as they did with Lebanon more than three decades ago, from one round of negotiations to another, where there are no losers and no winners.

The first two years of the Lebanese civil war established a strong and solid internal balance that local parties were not able to corrupt. They created security demarcation lines between areas and kept the ruins of the Lebanese state standing, encouraging the breakup of the army with the mutiny of the Lebanese Arab Army and similar mini armies.

This is the situation in Syria one year after it exploded. There are no winners. The regime did not fall and the opposition did not wither away. The Syrian army was shaken by a split, but it was not a real threat, contrary to what happened in Lebanon in the 1970s.

It did open the door to such a threat but did not strip it of its ability to stop security demarcation lines from appearing in Syria. The regime and its opponents inside and outside Syria agree that they will both remain standing.

Then, there were the assassinations, the bombings, the undermining of the state, and the confessional conflicts.

Syria today is close to Lebanon in the mid 1970s.

The first round of the Syrian troubles are based on several indicators, such as:

1- Neither the regime nor the opposition – and neither the Arabs nor the West – want to openly disrupt or block (UN and Arab League special envoy) Kofi Annan’s mission to Syria. But both sides accuse one another of attempting to make it fail.

The Russians and the Chinese commended the Syrian president on the ceasefire, his willingness to start a dialogue, and for remaining in power. While the France and the US doubt the tenacity of the truce and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s sincerity.

On the opposite side, Damascus sees the first round of ceasefire as an opportunity to catch its breath and win more time until the French and US presidential elections in the next few months.

Syrian officials cannot hide their relief following the easing of the harsh positions of Germany, Italy, the UK, and Spain. France remains the spearhead in the confrontation with Assad.

They are also relieved by the Western media shifting its focus on the violations perpetrated by the armed opposition, including killings, violence, and assassinations.

2- The ceasefire will remain brittle if it is not coupled with a political settlement between the two sides of the conflict. The regime is already speaking of a settlement process that will begin with legislative elections next month. This will bring about a new people’s assembly that will begin to implement reforms, including a new constitution.

The internal and external opposition differ in their approach on the next phase, even if they agree on the need to overthrow the current regime, topple Assad, and remove the (ruling) Baath party completely from power.

The internal opposition agrees to a dialogue with the regime leading to its removal. The external opposition insists on removing Assad prior to the national dialogue.

Nevertheless, the latter agreed to Annan’s plan to sit at a table headed by the Syrian president and under the roof of his regime.

It also sticks to the demand for foreign military intervention, in hope of accelerating the political process. But this is unacceptable to the internal opposition.

In the meantime, Assad asked the Assistant to the Vice President Major General Mohammad Nassif, in addition to spokesperson and minister Bouthaina Shaaban to meet with opposition figures. They met some of them in the past few weeks in preparation for a national dialogue.

3- Although both sides of the conflict were forced into a ceasefire, the regime found Annan’s plan to be closer to its interests since it recognized that Assad will stay in power.

Annan remains opposed to changing the course of his mission toward a different goal, namely, isolating the Syrian president.

While the peace plan grants the right to demonstrate, it denied the opposition the – more effective – right to bear arms, due to Arab and Westerns differences on this issue.

Assad was unable to destroy the opposition but he managed to weaken its presence on the street by imposing a security-based status quo throughout February and March before agreeing on Annan’s plan on 27 March.

He was able to stop the creation of security demarcation lines between cities and villages and shifted the expected mission of the international observers in another direction.

During the Arab monitoring mission (that ended earlier this year), the armed opposition tried to capture cities and villages as soon as the monitors would enter and the regular army would retreat. It attempted to create areas closed to the regime through a front that would link Homs with Hama and Hama with Idlib, all the way to the coastline.

The international monitors will have a more limited role, observing the ceasefire and ensuring stability following the army’s retreat from areas snatched by the insurgents.

The Free Syrian Army was able to keep only one base, in camps on the Turkish side of the border. The armed opposition has been reduced to carrying out small mobile attacks against the army before going back into hiding.

Stopping the creation of frontlines between different areas was Assad’s main reason for accepting Annan’s plan in the first place. The mission of international monitors will not repeat the experience of their Arab predecessors.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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