x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Counter Assad's fiction with plan for reconciliation

Syria does need a new peace plan, but not the one proposed by its embattled president this week. Rather, it needs a plan that chips aways at the support of wavering Assad loyalists.

Bashar Al Assad's speech on Sunday merits a closer look. In the address, the president dug in his heels, congratulating the military that has conducted a 21-month campaign of brutality while offering a meaningless plan that shows he has no place in Syria's future.

This so-called plan matches the formulation that Al Assad has followed since the uprising began nearly two years ago: first comes a series of local dialogues moderated by Baathist officials, then conventions, parliamentary elections and a new constitution; finally a broad government. Syria tried this before - in fact, the head of that "coalition government", Riad Hijab, defected in August. This new plan is merely restaging of a farcical piece of political theatre.

The recent speech also appeared to be an attempt to pre-empt other initiatives that would exclude Al Assad. Another plan that requires his eventual departure is being considered, a plan that in all likelihood was communicated to Al Assad by the UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, during meetings last month.

Mr Brahimi wanted to build on the Russia-backed Geneva transition plan, which the UN envoy had said would be enough to resolve the crisis in Syria. Al Assad, who had previously accepted the Geneva plan, may have seen that he was being manoeuvred into a corner. "Supporting helpful foreign initiatives doesn't mean in any way accepting their interpretation," Al Assad said. "I'm talking about the Geneva initiative."

Although the embattled president said it was just a matter of "interpretation", and went out of his way to praise his allies in Russia and China, the message must have been clear in Moscow. Al Assad is not listening.

A meaningful peace plan cannot depend on the president, or even the members of his inner circle, who at times have argued for an even more brutal approach. Not even their allies will be able to pressure them.

But that inner circle is not what is propping up the regime. Even in the hall of the Assad opera house on Sunday, some of those cheering, fist-pumping sycophants must have known that the regime's days are numbered. Plans for a transition must involve a strategy to begin chipping away at the support of wavering loyalists, which in turn requires some guarantees of safe passage and due process. For mid-level commanders in the field, there is no incentive to stop fighting without some surety for the future.

A meaningful plan needs to appeal to the broader regime and top officials. There has to be a clear guarantee that the rule of law, rather than the caprice of individuals, will govern in Syria. That is something Al Assad could never offer.