“The only solution for Syria is through the negotiation process initiated by Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy for Syria”, the veteran Guardian Chief Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Steele, said at ORG’s Liddite meeting on 21 March 2012.
Jonathan Steele has recently returned from Syria where he interviewed the disaffected, unemployed men aged under 30, who appear, he said, to make up the majority of the activists, and gauged what their interests were in the current deadlock. He found there was no appetite for foreign intervention. In their view it would mean a re-run of what happened in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, when a million Iraqi refugees fled to Syria. There was also little or no support for the idea of outside states like Qatar or Saudi Arabia arming the Free Syrian Army. This was also true of the older oppositionist figures. In Jonathan Steele’s view, there is no evidence that the regime is on the brink of collapse – it probably has the support of the majority of Syrians, and with the exception of Homs, the major cities. So, in his view, dialogue is the only option remaining for a peaceful solution. Western media have been very critical of Annan’s mission instead of encouraging talks as the last option remaining, Jonathan Steele said. Despite much pessimism expressed already, these talks could be effective after all due to Kofi Annan’s balanced and even-handed approach, which only speaks of a ‘political transition’.
The Annan plan has been backed by the Russians – who, according to Jonathan Steele, are being unfairly criticised for their UN Security Council veto in February. The veto was prompted by the United States pushing a resolution proposed by Morocco, just as the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was in Damascus to meet President Assad. After Russian cajoling, the Syrian government now accepts international mediation. This is a big shift. Mediation, however, requires the opposition and its western and Arab League backers to stop insisting Assad surrenders power before talks begin. The Western-backed Security Council draft in February had supported the Arab League’s call for President Assad to step down and transfer power to his Vice-President before any dialogue could begin. Western diplomats knew such a reference to regime change would mean the Russians and Chinese would veto the resolution. Knowing this, the US decided to put the Moroccan draft to a sudden vote, directly before Sergei Lavrov was meeting Assad to conduct negotiations. Now it seems that US demands for Assad to step down have been put to one side.
By contrast, the Annan plan, which has been called “Syria’s last chance” by Russia’s President Medvedev, does not call for Assad to stand down. As a result, it has been heavily criticised by the opposition Syrian National Council. Given the entrenched positions of both sides, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has spoken of a long drawn out political process – saying there is “no deadline.”
One of the key questions in any dialogue process would be: Who will be the interlocutors – and who do the oppositionists represent? Also the timing of moves from the side of the government and the opposition is of the essence. In a situation of deadlock, such moves have to happen nearly simultaneously, backed by talks, and given that, first of all, there will need to be a ceasefire.
It remains to be seen if the ceasefire deadline next week will be adhered to.
For more by Jonathan Steele, see: ‘Syria might need its own Mandela to end this war’ in the Guardian, and his Syria Diary in the London Review of Books.