Middle East
10:22 am
Thu April 19, 2012

For Syria, A 'Lawrence Of Arabia' Moment

In the final scenes of the classic film Lawrence of Arabia, the Arab rebel fighters are wrapped up with internal, petty squabbles in Damascus as the great powers maneuver for the future of Syria.

Now, nearly a century after the events depicted in that movie, there's a similar Lawrence of Arabia moment playing out in Syria.

International envoy Kofi Annan is playing the role of the chief negotiator for an ambitious peace plan after more than a year of a bloody revolt that has left an estimated 10,000 dead in Syria, and threatens to undermine the stability of the wider region.

Hammered out in a United Nations resolution, Annan's six-point plan includes an immediate withdrawal of troops from populated areas; a cease-fire, first by the government and then by opposition fighters; and the delivery of humanitarian aid. This new atmosphere is designed to pave the way for all parties to negotiate a political solution.

However, the cease-fire appears to be in danger of unraveling just days after taking effect, and President Bashar Assad's security forces appear to be following their own script, something more akin to The Terminator.

According to opposition activists, the Syrian army has been shooting and shelling in several cities. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that Syria has not fully withdrawn troops and heavy weapons from cities as promised.

A Tough Task For Annan

Annan has been given little chance of success even by those who voted to back him at the U.N. His efforts have been widely criticized, his motives questioned, and he's been accused of buying time for the Syrian regime.

But no one seems willing to write off Annan's plan just yet. There's no alternative at present, and without a political solution, further fighting seems inevitable, with potentially dire consequences for Syria's 23 million people, and the prospect of the turmoil spilling over into neighboring states.

The uprising began with mostly peaceful protests last year, but the regime's harsh response against its own citizens has contributed to increasing radicalism among the armed opposition, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group.

The report cites a "growing disconnect between an insurgency and a popular movement." Author Peter Harling describes Syrians as "dumbfounded" by horrific levels of hatred and violence, and reports that the Syrian army has become an "occupation force." Entire neighborhoods have been bombarded "with no regard for civilians." The "peaceful protesters" have been pushed aside by the armed revolt, and armed groups have been pushed toward a more violent insurgency to counter the brutality of the Syrian army, he says.

"I am in favor of the Annan-type transition rather than a civil war and praying that 'the right side' wins," says Volker Perthes, one of the foremost experts on Syria and the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

U.N. Monitors Start To Arrive

Last weekend, the first batch of U.N. monitors arrived in Damascus with the goal of establishing a cease-fire that will stick.

"This process, even the cease-fire, is bound to crash and fail again and again," says Perthes. "It takes more than one attempt to finally get someone out of office if you can't fight him out of office."

Syria's beleaguered Assad surely has different notions about the ultimate aims of the peace plan. But Assad is under increasing pressure, says Perthes.

The Syrian economy is devastated, including the critical agriculture sector. And the regime's strongest international backers, Russia and Iran, have signed on to the peace plan.

If Assad continues to put down internal dissent by force and the peace process fails, he could lose his biggest backers. If he calls off the troops, he could face a renewed uprising. For Assad, this is the dilemma of the peace plan, a dilemma well understood by activists on the ground.

However, the Annan plan meets none of the demands set by activists, says Randa Slim, who researches the Syrian opposition for the New America Foundation in Washington.

Activists Want Assad To Go

For the past year, the chants in Syria's restive towns have called for toppling Assad and ending four decades of one-family rule in Syria. But after so much bloodshed, it is increasingly hard to see any compromise emerging between Assad's ruling Alawite elite and the Syrian opposition.

"They are against a negotiated settlement," Slim says of the opposition. "What they want is a cease-fire so they can field demonstrations."

Last Friday, thousands of Syrians took to the streets to test the shaky cease-fire, sticking to back streets and steering clear of large deployments of security police. The swelling crowds were a reminder of an earlier nonviolent phase of the uprising.

"If the cease-fire holds, it will strengthen the opposition because people will come back to the streets," says Perthes. "Despite all of our talk that fear was broken, the most legitimate form of protest was marginalized. If they see you can demonstrate safely, there will be people taking to the streets everywhere."

A return to mass nonviolent demonstrations could change the dynamics of armed opposition, says Wissam Tarif, head of the Beirut office of Avaaz, a private organization smuggling humanitarian aid to Syrian towns.

"The question is: What will Assad allow? What will happen when he has thousands in the streets?" Tarif says. The answer may come Friday when activists plan a mass mobilization now that the first U.N. monitors have hit the ground.

"The U.N. monitors will give protesters a vitamin dose," says Tarif. "Those protesting will determine the future of Syria."

The Syrian crisis has displaced more than 1 million people, explains Tarif, many from the city of Homs, where more than a dozen neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble by the army. The internally displaced from Homs are finding shelter in the suburbs surrounding Damascus.

"These people are outraged," he says. "They will take to the streets."

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