Consequences of Annan’s questionable stalemate in Syria

By Jonathan Power

The Syrian cease-fire supports the status quo – the armed might of the government on one side and the armed opposition factions on the other. The government cannot eradicate the rebels although it can brutalise them. But neither can the armed opposition hope to topple the government which retains its popularity in the capital, Damascus, and in many other parts of the country where Shiite Islam and the Alawites are a majority.

Is this what the world wants? Are the members of the UN and its former secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who has negotiated this cease-fire, aware of the implications of this? At first sight Annan has hardened into place, like a freeze-frame in a film, the conflict as it now stands. If the government retains its position as the superior force why should it agree to all the other elements of the Annan plan? It may concede that the International Red Cross can tend to the wounded. But it will never concede bowing to elections in which there is a chance of the opposition winning. At most it will allow for some minority representation.

The Annan plan may not even get this far. The Syrian government is quite capable of shooting itself in the foot. So intent is it in inflicting bloodshed it can’t see that the balance of the advantage with the Annan plan tilts in its direction. Hence its continuous shelling of the city of Homs.

But there is a chink of light for the opposition. It does not lie with the armed factions that make up the Free Syrian Army which are in effect being neutralised by the Annan initiative. It lies with the large numbers that have protested but have not taken up the gun.

If one reads or watches the news reports one can be forgiven for thinking that the armed militants are the dominant force in the opposition. This is not so. As often happens in conflict zones the media leads us astray. The media gravitate towards the gun. Quieter forces get only cursory attention.

We saw this in Egypt. Not at first, as there was, as in Tunisia, only non-violent protest. But later after ex-president, Hosni Mubarak, had been deposed some of the demonstrators started throwing at the police stones and petrol bombs. Perhaps there were a hundred or so of them but this is what the media focussed on for days to the detriment of the peaceful demonstrators. Fortunately, for reasons unclear, the militants appear to have faded into the background and the recent large non-violent demonstrators are now again the focus of the media’s lens.

Who knows in Libya if there were non-violent groups? The guerrillas got all the world’s attention. Maybe if the opposition elements who did not want to take up the gun had been filmed and interviewed their numbers might have swelled.

In Yemen non-violent demonstrators outnumbered the armed men and had much to do with toppling the regime. In Bahrain there were only non-violent protests and they have had some effect, albeit not enough. In Qatar, Al Jazeera television, a non-violent force for good, has been a crucial element in furthering the Arab Spring.

Back to Syria: The leadership of the non-violent opposition – The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change – convened a meeting in Cairo in February. The forum’s stated aim is “to enable the Syrian people to overthrow the current regime with all its symbols by all means of civil resistance”. The forum is due to meet again this month. One member, Rasha Yousef, told the Daily Star of Lebanon that “It’s not late for a political solution. In politics we don’t say we have one solution. We say we have solutions.”

In its statement the group says they want to dismantle the current regime “in a way that averts the reproduction of tyranny in another form”.

Maan Abdul-Salam, another member, argues that “Meeting the regime with arms will only push them to use survival instincts – the gun. But it is much harder to fight peaceful demonstrators than armed groups”. This was the British experience facing Gandhi’s opposition to British rule in India. It was Martin Luther King’s view and it was, much less known, the experience in Denmark and parts of France of the German military command. Basil Liddle Hart, the leading British military thinker of that time, who was responsible for the interviewing of captured German generals observed from what they told him that non-violent opposition gave them much more trouble than the Allied armies.

BBC television did report from Syria last week on the mass non-violent demonstrations after Friday prayers. What it didn’t point out was that these demonstrators were the majority force. But only they can prize apart the stalemate that Annan for the best of intentions has organised.

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