UN Plan’s Failure to Force Assad Exit Seen as Russian Win

Syrian Deal Lacking Call for Assad Exit Seen as Win for Russia
Protesters burn pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, upper right, his brother Maher, upper left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, lower right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a demonstration in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon on June 17, 2012. Photographer: Manjoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

A United Nations-brokered peace plan for Syria is a victory for Russia because it lacks clear wording excluding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from taking part in a transition of power, analysts in London and Washington said.

World powers on June 30 backed a plan that doesn’t directly spell out the fate of Assad, who has been battling rebels for 16 months in a conflict that’s resulted in as many as 17,000 fatalities, according to non-governmental organizations. Nations including the U.S. and the U.K. watered down a draft by special envoy Kofi Annan after Russia rejected language banning Assad and members of his inner circle from participating in a transitional government.

“The latest decision is a compromise by the West and a victory for Russia,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight. “There has not been an explicit decision to push Assad out, something that Russia was keen on.”

International efforts to mediate a peace deal have faltered over whether Assad must leave office before a shift in power can begin. The communique from foreign ministers in Geneva, which declares a “firm timetable” for actions without any dates or deadlines, may draw scrutiny over whether the U.S. and allies France and the U.K. yielded too much to get a so-called road map accepted by Russia and China.

‘Should Fail’

Syria’s state-run Baath newspaper said in an editorial today that the Geneva meeting could not have produced positive results because it ignored the Syrian government’s efforts to introduce change.

“Any effort that ignores the facts on the ground and does not consider that the reform process in Syria has achieved and is achieving realistic and concrete results on the ground, is an effort that should fail,” the newspaper said.

The accord drew quick criticism from Syrian opposition groups yesterday, which vowed not to negotiate with Assad or members of his government.

“The Syrian people had expected a more serious and effective effort in dealing with the regime,” the Syrian National Council, the main Syrian opposition group, said in a statement. “The Geneva declaration lacks a clear mechanism for action and a timetable for implementation and leaves the regime without accountability.”

The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, said in an e-mailed statement that the agreement merely gives the government more time.

‘Violence, Massacres’

“This provides yet another opportunity for the regime’s thugs to play their favorite game in utilizing time to stop the popular Syrian revolution and extinguish it with violence and massacres,” the group said.

The Assad government has portrayed the unrest as a conspiracy and the protesters as “terrorists.” Assad issued two anti-terrorism laws today.

One calls for a 20-year jail sentence with hard labor and a fine for anyone who has aided terrorists, with harsher punishment if the aim of setting up such a group is to change the government, state-run SANA news agency reported. The law imposes the death penalty if the actions result in a fatality.

Under the second law, people convicted of terrorism will be dismissed from government jobs.

Some 250 members of the Syrian opposition began a two-day meeting in Cairo today under the auspices of the Arab League to discuss a common political vision. Arab states called for a unified international stand against the violence in Syria and stressed the need for maintaining the country’s unity.

‘Blood on Their Hands’

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists on June 30 in Geneva that even without explicit wording, “Assad will still have to go. What we have done here is to strip away the fiction that he and those with blood on their hands can stay in power.”

The final version retained “strong language” and was a “significant step forward,” she told Bloomberg Radio.

“There was every reason to believe that we would never get the Russians and the Chinese on board,” Clinton said in the interview in Geneva. During more than six hours of contentious negotiations, she said she “didn’t know that we were going to be able to get anything.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the road map doesn’t require Assad’s removal and pledged that his government would press the Syrian leader to comply with the peace plan.

Death Toll

Syrian security forces killed 73 people today, Al Arabiya television station reported, citing an activist group. Syrian TV reported that an explosion at an arms depot in Khaldiyyeh in Homs killed and wounded several “terrorists.”

The accord is “only a half-victory for Russia as the next step, the hardest step, would be ensuring that the plan works,” IHS Global’s Gevorgyan said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “For it to succeed, the unity government would need to include the moderate forces ready for dialogue.”

Jeff Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation in New York, called the agreement a “win” in that it takes a step toward ending the Syria conflict.

Still, it could be seen as a “loss for anyone seeking to annihilate the other side; for Assad, whose Russian backers have now formally committed themselves to a successor government whose leaders must be acceptable to all Syrian sides -- as he and his brother surely are not -- and for Islamists, ditto,” Laurenti said in an e-mailed response to questions.

‘Major Concession’

Before the Geneva meeting, Annan had crafted a proposal saying a new government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”

The modified text suggests “Washington has made a major concession in that Assad could stay on,” though a clause on mutual consent means the opposition would have veto power over who could be in the transitional government, Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

“It’s unclear how Assad could be present and create the ‘neutral environment’ outlined in the agreement,” Tabler said.

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