Damascus: The Protocols of Annan’s Plan

Nicolas Nassif

Originally posted on Al-Akhbar English, Tuesday, April 24, 2012

According to close observers, Damascus’ response to the peace plan proposed by the UN-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan is proving to be positive. When asked, government officials express a willingness to provide the necessary support for the plan, as long as there is a commitment to work with the Syrian state.

Damascus’ cooperation is based on several factors:

1 – After signing the basic draft of the cooperation protocol agreement between the Syrian foreign ministry, represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Moqdad, and Annan on April 19, Damascus is waiting for the final draft to be signed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Annan during the latter’s expected visit to Damascus.

The Syrian government expects that Annan will provide the guarantees necessary for Damascus to agree to the plan. Specifically, he will guarantee that the other side in the conflict will abide by the plan, especially those who hide behind the armed opposition, fund it, arm it, and provide safe havens for its men.

The initial draft of the protocol was meant to speed up the arrival of United Nations monitors in order to stop the violence in the country. This was portrayed through the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) haste on April 21 – 48 hours after the signing of the draft proposal – to vote on decision 2043 to send 300 observers to Syria.

Damascus had insisted on a written and signed protocol guaranteeing that the UN will deal with the Syrian state as the only authority for implementing the plan and running the national dialogue.

Observers of the Syrian position believe that the international monitoring mechanism was agreed on beforehand between the Syrian government and the UN. Syrian President Bashar Assad delegated his foreign minister to negotiate with the international interlocutor.

He informed Annan of the decision in their last meeting in Damascus. When Annan inquired about the formal Syrian channel to go through, Assad referred him to Moallem.

Moallem’s task is to ensure that Syria’s relationship with the West regarding the crisis is in the hands of the Syrian president directly, where he has the final word.

Assad’s political and media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban will coordinate this relationship. The different tasks were distributed between Moallem, Moqdad, the Syrian foreign ministry’s official spokesperson Jihad Makdissi, and other departments in the ministry, depending on the importance of the link and the rank of the interlocutor.

Shaaban’s role is not limited to coordination. Assad assigned her to work with the assistant to the Vice President Major General Mohammad Nassif in contacting the internal opposition and preparing for a national dialogue round table.

2 – Damascus does not consider the protocol for cooperation and organization of the mission of the observers to be a revised version of the protocol that governed the Arab observers’ mission in Syria last December.

The latter was cancelled by the Arab League after just 20 days and a few hours after the one-month renewal for the Arab observers. Their mission was abruptly stopped, but observers say that Syria was not behind the disruption, nor does it see the UN observers as a continuation of the Arab League’s team. Riyadh’s decision to pull out its observers was enough to destroy the whole mission, even after the one-month renewal was approved by the league.

This will not be the case with the international observers who will fall under UNSC decisions 2042 and 2043.

From the beginning, Damascus had its reservations about dealing with Annan as an international-Arab envoy and refused to meet any of his Arab delegates, acting as if it has suspended relations with the Arab League. But it sees Annan’s current mission as stemming from the (UNSC) and thus guaranteed by the Russians. The council had unanimously agreed on the plan’s six points.

Syrian officials spoke about detailed coordination with Moscow concerning the West’s mobilization inside and outside the (UNSC). One year into the crisis, they are now less concerned about Russian pressure.

Russia – and China – drew a thick red line around the regime and refused to weaken it by force, thus giving it a stronger stance in managing the crisis and the national dialogue. What is more important is that Russia and China’s position put an end to any [foreign] military intervention against Syria.

This comes at a time of expanding Russian influence in various directions in the east of the Mediterranean, especially following their US$2.5 billion loan to Cyprus.

3 – The mission of the international observers is time specific and transitional, lasting for three months. Damascus expects it to end then and has made clear that it will not be very enthusiastic about renewing the mission.

The observers will not stay in Syria very long, assuming their mission – based on Annan’s plan – is to observe the cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of armed fighters, and return to stability.

This will be a prerequisite in shifting the conflict between the regime and its opposition to the political arena, through a national dialogue encouraged by the plan.

4 – By insisting on a specific mission and limited timeframe for the international observers, Damascus is saying it will not allow them to become a separation force between the regular army, the forces of order, and the police, on one side, and the armed opposition on the other, thus creating demarcation lines between the two.

Damascus also insists on its own interpretation of Annan’s plan. It does not believe the observers are there for a ceasefire, since the plan did not mention this. The plan speaks about a cessation of hostilities, the giving up of arms by the opposition, and the withdrawal of the army and heavy weapons from the cities back to the barracks.

This will be followed by a national dialogue on reform and the next stage for the country. According to this explanation, this will lead to a return of stability and control initiated by the state, as an authority recognized by the UN (UNSC) decision.

5 – No external actor will have a role in the dialogue between the regime and its opponents. The regime’s strongest ally, Russia, speaks about being able to provide the best conditions for a national dialogue in Moscow or Damascus.

This is why it remains in contact with the opposition, especially the internal wing, and receives its representatives one after the other. But the Syrian regime tells its visitors that no one – including the UN – will have a role in the national dialogue.

Furthermore, the regime says that there is definitely no role for any country that retracted its ambassador or closed its mission in Damascus. Nor will there be a role for any country that provided shelter, financing, or weapons to the armed opposition, that participated in the blockade on Syria, or was involved in the internal conflict.

Although the countries that fit these criteria make up more than half of the world from east to west, the Syrian leadership considers the national dialogue as its own mission, where it still has the upper hand.
Damascus is encouraged by the fact that no European or US observer will join the team of 300 arriving next week. But it is enthusiastic about the participation of Russians, Chinese, and Indians.

6 – The Syrian regime believes that the real guarantee needed to face the challenge remains on the ground, in the coherence of its military and security institutions and the steadfastness of the army that shifted from defending to attacking in mid-February.

After one year of clashes, the army and the intelligence services were able to expose the limitations of the opposition, its available supply of weapons, and sources of funding.

This leads Syrian officials to believe that the army broke the dynamism of the armed insurgency even though the security victory has not yet been achieved and it might still be a long and arduous road.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

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