x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Redouble effort for diplomatic solution in Syria

The new Annan plan may be grasping at straws, but every diplomatic option to curb the bloodshed in Syria is worth exploring.

Kofi Annan's latest proposal to stop the Syrian bloodshed is a "national unity" cabinet that would bring together government and opposition leaders, while excluding anyone whose presence would undermine national reconciliation.

That reconciliation seems a distant goal in today's Syria. It would be interesting to see a list of potential ministers who could cooperate on any basis. Plainly President Bashar Al Assad could not be included. But he has shown no inclination to leave, no matter how much his obduracy costs "his" country.

Mr Annan, on behalf of the United Nations and the Arab League, is convening an "action group" of concerned countries tomorrow in Geneva to discuss his newest plan. The worsening violence - starkly emphasised by two car bombings yesterday at the Palace of Justice in Damascus - means that almost any diplomatic overture, even one seemingly unlikely to succeed, is welcome.

Iran and Saudi Arabia will both be absent from the Geneva talks, but Russia will be there. So will the other UN permanent members, plus Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. But Russia matters particularly because Mr Al Assad's grip would be far weaker without Moscow's support.

For that reason, there was great interest in a news-service report yesterday that Russia would support Mr Annan's cabinet scheme. But the story was quickly denied, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying Russia "will not support any external meddling". That, in effect, is a prop for the regime in Damascus.

How long can Russia maintain this line? President Vladimir Putin has made Russia a pivotal external player in the Syrian crisis. As The National's columnist Alan Philps notes on this page, Moscow's motives may not be as pragmatic as could be hoped. But Russian interests and influence in this crisis are substantial all the same.

Without Russian backing, a unity cabinet for Syria is less plausible than the previously mooted transition government. That notion, loosely based on the Yemeni model (which has had mixed success), would have entailed Mr Al Assad's departure, leaving a government of regime figures to pave the way for managed, genuine change.

That plan is dead in the water. This one may meet a similar fate. Meanwhile, Syrians continue to fight and die, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence.

If Syria is to avoid the tragedy of full-scale civil war, with all the attendant risks for the region, then the solution must come from negotiations, both domestic and international. Far from rejecting Mr Annan's plan as unworkable, the parties at Geneva urgently need to push for stronger action.