12 Apr 2012

Why Syria’s peace plan is destined to fail

The Kofi Annan-brokered ceasefire in Syria will fail because of irreconcilable ambitions within the country, regionally and internationally, Middle East and security experts tell Channel 4 News.

The ceasefire brokered by Mr Annan took effect at dawn on Thursday with fighting carrying on almost until the minute it came into place.

However, witnesses say that the regime’s snipers, tanks and soldiers have not withdrawn from the country’s cities and towns.

It is the first lull in hostilities since the Syrian uprising began more than a year ago, but the incompatibility of Bashar al-Assad’s drive to suppress the revolt and the rebels’ resolution to oppose the regime until it is no more, means that most observers do not hold out hope for imminent peace.

And the enmity within Syria has triggered a proxy war between regional and international rivals, experts say.

‘Deficit of trust’

“The odds are really against the Annan plan working, because the balance of forces on the ground does not favour a diplomatic solution,” says Professor Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at London School of Economics.

“There is a deficit of trust and a river of blood has deepened that mistrust. If you ask all groups who oppose the regime, ‘Are you ever willing to sit down and talk with the Assad regime?’ they will say ‘never’.

Assad will never acknowledge the legitimacy of the opposition. Prof Fawaz Gerges, LSE

“They say he must be out of the regime for that to happen. On the other side, Assad will never acknowledge the legitimacy of the opposition.”

There are also practical clauses in the Annan plan which have added to scepticism that it has any staying power.

Namely, it allows for anti-government citizens to continue protesting against Assad, which Michael Stephens of RUSI Qatar says the Syrian military will struggle to countenance.

And it is not only the systematic shelling of cities like Homs that must cease in line with Annan’s plans.

“There is also the question of a number of prisoners who are being tortured daily. Will the regime stop that, and the nightly forced disappearance of numerous civilians?” Mr Stephens asked.

‘War by proxy’

In the last seven months, Syria’s internal strife has fuelled the bitter enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Tehran has continued to support its close ally Syria, while Riyadh, along with several Gulf states including Qatar, has pushed the issue of arming the Free Syria Army (SFA).

Gulf states have already sent communications equipment to the SFA – around 3,000 satellite phones – and there are rumours that cash has been sent over, possibly as much as $100m per month (£62m), according to RUSI’s Mr Stephens.

Baghdad views the support given by Saudi and the Gulf states as a serious threat to its own stability. Prof Fawaz Gerges

There are also rumours that the salaries of SFA personnel are being paid for, and that money has been paid to arms dealers to act as middlemen to deliver guns and ammunition to fighters, but only half is getting through.

“Syria has become battleground, a theatre, a war by proxy, which has exacerbated and intensified the situation on the ground, and that is not good news for the opposition because their aspirations have become a hostage to this proxy war,” Prof Gerges said.

“Iran is Damascus’ pivotal ally. It does not view the conflict in same way. They see it as part of the regional rivalry to clip the wings of the Islamic republic. It has provided political support, financial support.”

Interestingly, Iraq has also entered the regional battleground over Syria, according to Prof Gerges.

“President Maliki has lectured his counterparts about the dangers of arming rebels, saying that arming them would make Syria a haven for al-Qaeda.

“So Iran-Baghdad has become the lifeline of Assad. Iraq feels shunned by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and it has now become as pivotal a player as the Iranian camp. Baghdad views the support given by Saudi and the Gulf states as a serious threat to its own stability.”

Following Russia’s lead

But it is in the international arena where the course of the Syrian uprising is likely to be decided, or rather with the decisions one country: Russia.

Assad’s other major ally, Moscow has already wielded its UN veto twice with regard to further intervention in Syria, and it has maintained its support in the face of sustained pressure to condemn the violent suppression of the uprising.

The consensus seems to be that China will follow Russia’s lead on Syria, and some observers see the expected failure of the Annan plan as a potential for persuading Moscow to yield to calls for greater intervention, because the Kremlin signed up the deal, forcing Assad to follow suit.

The Russians have made the best of a bad situation. If fighting resumes, it is not necessarily a policy failure for them. Michael Stephens, RUSI Qatar

But it looks unlikely that the Kremlin’s policy will bend, according to Mr Stephens.

“There is stomach for tougher action [if the ceasefire fails] particularly amongst western states. There is a lot of pressure on Russia, China,” he said.

“But the Russians have made the best of a bad situation. If fighting resumes, it is not necessarily a policy failure for them, although they would need to rethink strategy.

“There is no doubt that it would be especially awkward for them if it is Syrian loyal forces who break the ceasefire.

“If that does happen, they will say to the [international community]: ‘You wanted cessation of violence and that’s what we got. What more can we do?’

Prof Gerges added that because Russia does not share the western interpretation of the situation in Syria, it will vehemently defy pressure to forgo its veto.

“I can’t see how they would support intervention.Russia does not see conflict in Syria as western powers do, they see it as a civil war and that’s why they treat the camps [regime and opposition] as two sides of same coin. As such, Syria is not concerned about western powers.”

He added: “Despite everything we have heard and seen, both camps have locked themselves in for protracted bloody conflict.”