Another failed peace plan for Syria?/ Negotiating with Iran

Apr 12, 2012

Another failed peace plan for Syria?/ Negotiating with Iran

Update from AIJAC

April 12, 2012
Number 04/12 #02

This Update deals primarily with the apparent failure of the peace plan for Syria negotiated by UN envoy Kofi Annan, which appears to have failed after a promised pullout of  Syrian forces from major towns by Tuesday appears to have largely not occurred (though relative quiet is reportedly currently in place across the country.)

First up is Syrian opposition figure and analyst Radwan Ziadeh who argues it was absurd to have expected Syrian President Assad to have complied with the Annan peace plan given his track record. He points particularly to repeated promises by Assad to both Turkey and the Arab League which were not kept, and seemed to be simply a diversion. Ziadeh also notes that Assad prepared the way for failing to comply with the deadline well before this week – placing new conditions on it and setting up a rationale for it in recent statements by regime officials. For this important look at how a Syrian opposition figure sees the situation, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Washington Institute specialist Andrew Tabler, who explores policy options from here. He, like Ziadeh, notes that Assad had been backsliding from his agreement to implement the withdrawal for some time, and predicts that no more than a temporary halt to the fighting to allow in humanitarian aid looks likely. He calls for using Syria’s misbehaviour to pressure Damascus’ backers, China and Syria, to change their obstructionist ways and find new means to assist the opposition – including preparing contingency plans for humanitarian intervention – as the next step. While his piece is US-centric, his policy advice applies to all states seeking a democratic end to the Syrian violence, and to read it all,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, noted American foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead looks at the parameters of the new talks on Iran’s illegal nuclear program scheduled to begin in Istanbul on the weekend (but which may or may not take place, given Iranian last-minute demands to change the venue.) Mead points out the Iranian style will be to take refuge in the “complications” of any negotiations “putting forward partial proposals and then perhaps pulling them back again, offsetting a concession here by making new demands over there, and refusing to reveal a bottom line until the eleventh — or even the twelfth — hour.” He notes the numerous complexities involved mean the prospects of the negotiations are going to be very hard to judge, but urges several key indicators to keep an eye on. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE. A good analysis of the Iran bargaining coming up – including the Iranian reaction to a purported US proposal – comes from noted Israeli academic expert on Iran Prof. David Menashri.

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Why Did Anyone Believe Bashar al-Assad’s Promises of a Ceasefire to Begin With?

Radwan Ziadeh

The New Republic, April 10, 2012

The only real surprise about the six-point peace plan for Syria put forward by United Nations envoy Kofi Annan is why it took until yesterday, the eve of its proposed ceasefire, for the world to declare it a failure. Reacting to the latest violence throughout Syria on Monday, U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Washington is “not hopeful” that Tuesday would see a cessation of hostilities. But any such hope was naïve to begin with.

Among the things the past year has taught us is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a master of diversion. He is well-practiced at navigating the loopholes in international and domestic law, and acutely aware of the opportunities presented by repetitive non-binding statements. Unbacked by action, diplomacy has only ever provided cover and additional time for Assad to pursue his brutal goals. In that way, as long as the Security Council refuses to make a credible promise of force—endorsing and enforcing a strict deadline for a ceasefire—its efforts are unlikely to result in peace in Syria.

Bashar’s legacy leaves little reason to believe that diplomacy is a promising way to deal with him. Consider, for example, his relations with Turkey. Since taking office, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has endorsed a policy of “no problems with neighbors,” which meant he has earnestly pursued engagement with even the likes of Bashar al-Assad. That is why much of the international community had high hopes that Ankara would be able to persuade Damascus to solve its crisis through reform. But the previously friendly relations between the Turkish minister and the Syrian president have had little practical effect over the course of the crisis.

The many requests and pleas made by Erdogan and his envoys over the past year have fallen on deaf ears. To be sure, Assad has tried to appease his neighbors by promising that his regime will pursue political reform—but he did not ever interrupt the Syrian army’s tank assaults on protesters. It is to his credit that Erdogan eventually saw through this charade. As the Syrian massacre continued, the Turkish president finally renounced his policy of engagement, and declared Assad to be an outright dictator.

Just as Assad boldly made promises he knew he would never keep in Ankara, he has done the same with the Arab League. In November, the Syrian government agreed to a peace deal brokered by the League. Two days after pledging to end the violence, the regime opened fire on protesters. The Syrian army also continued its assaults in the presence of a mission of observers from the Arab League. Yet another link was added to Bashar al-Assad’s chain of bold-faced lies.

Assad has continued his pattern of empty promises with the latest effort by the United Nations to halt the killing. Though he has pledged to cooperate with Annan, he has defied his attempts to establish dialogue between the regime and the opposition. And unsurprisingly, as soon as Assad agreed last month to Annan’s proposed April 10 deadline for the regime to impose a ceasefire and withdraw its troops from Syrian cities, he began paving the way for his continued defiance. Indeed, not long thereafter, Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar al-Jaafari announced that the government should not realistically be expected to withdraw its troops if the opposition does not lay down its arms, establishing a new condition for peace that was never intended by Annan.

Indeed, whenever it makes an agreement, Assad’s regime is always already setting up its rationale for noncompliance. That is why, if there is any hope of turning the tide, and of capitalizing on an unprecedented level of international unity and action on Syria, the U.N. must not only endorse a deadline for a ceasefire, as it has already done—it must craft contingency plans in the event that Assad continues to defy the will of the rest of the world. Otherwise, it’s not only the lives of Syrians and the region’s fragile stability that are at risk, but the future credibility of the international community.

Radwan Ziadeh is a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

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After the Annan Deadline: Options for U.S. Policy on Syria

By Andrew J. Tabler

PolicyWatch #1923
April 11, 2012

Washington would be well advised to expand its support for the opposition “within Syria” through a coalition from the Group of Friends of the Syrian People.

Bashar al-Assad’s complete disregard for UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s April 10 deadline for withdrawal of regime forces from population centers is only the latest sign that Damascus has no intention of implementing the envoy’s six-point plan to deal with the Syria crisis. The fact that the regime’s armed forces will remain in and around population centers when a proposed ceasefire takes effect at dawn on April 12 means that peaceful self-expression and assembly — core tenets of U.S. policy in Syria for the past year — will be effectively impossible. Combined with the regime’s other demands beyond the scope of the Annan deal, it now seems that while the UN initiative may at best temporarily reduce some humanitarian suffering, it is unlikely to be able to provide a political solution that would end the crisis. Therefore, the United States would be well advised to expand its support for the opposition “within Syria” through a coalition of the core members of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People that met in Istanbul last week.

Noncompliance with the Annan Plan

Despite Syrian foreign minister Walid Mouallem’s assurances in Moscow that the Assad regime is implementing Annan’s six-point plan, developments on the ground suggest the opposite. The Assad regime pledged in point two of the plan to “immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers, and begin a pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers.” In the past week alone, the regime has intensified its shelling of villages and neighborhoods throughout Syria, killing more than 1000 people according to opposition sources. On April 6, the U.S. Department of State released satellite imagery showing that military forces have not been withdrawn from population centers, as outlined under the Annan plan, but rather only repositioned near population centers. On April 11, Local Coordination Committees in Syria reported shelling, troop movements into towns, and more than 100 casualties. Damascus has exploited the UN plan to again attempt to impose its “security solution” over the country, squeeze out space for peaceful protest, and dictate terms from above. Given that protests and armed resistance actions continue, Damascus has failed yet again.

The signs of Damascus’s noncompliance with the plan have been readily apparent. On April 5, Syria’s representative to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, said that the agreement to withdraw military formations did not include “police forces” — a vague reference to the regime’s security forces, which have been major participants in the crackdown. Then on April 8, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jamal Makdessi announced that it was a “wrong interpretation” to expect that Damascus would abide by its pledge to Annan to withdraw its military forces by April 10. He went on to make further demands outside the UN agreement, including that Annan obtain “written guarantees” from the opposition to halt violence, as well as from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to stop “funding and arming terrorist groups” — the Assad regime’s parlance for the Syrian opposition as a whole.

More important, the Assad regime is failing to implement point two of the Annan plan — withdrawal of forces from population centers — because it knows it cannot implement point six of the plan: “respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.” Assad knows well that peaceful protestors, who have continued their activities unabated as the international community has focused its attention on the armed opposition, will fill Syria’s main squares and demand Assad’s departure or worse. To preclude this scenario, Assad has labeled peaceful protestors as “terrorists” and used live fire to put them down. The only aspect of the Annan plan that may be immediately workable would be temporary cessation of hostilities to provide humanitarian aid, along with admission of journalists and UN monitors.

Working the Problem from the Ground Up

Diplomacy will continue to play an important role as the Syria crisis unfolds. In the end, Russia and China may be important as part of any effort to get Assad to step aside and usher in a Syrian government more responsible to the demands of Syria’s youthful population. But Assad’s dodging of the Annan plan’s deadline, as well as his attempt via Russia to blur the main tenets of the agreement by introducing monitors before a ceasefire, amply demonstrates the limits of diplomacy at this time.

Fortunately, the United States has options. The United States is a member of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, a collection of eighty-three countries that met for the second time on April 1 in Istanbul to support the Syrian people and prepare for a post-Assad Syria. Washington would be well placed to work with the group’s other core members, which include Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, to forge and lead a coalition of countries to more directly support the Syrian opposition within Syria and prepare for all contingencies concerning the Syria crisis. Different countries would play different roles within this coalition. Gulf countries, for example, have already indicated a willingness to help arm the opposition within Syria. Turkey, which had to deal with deadly fire from Syrian forces in the Oncupinar Syrian refugee camp near Kilis this week, is now considering methods to funnel support to the opposition and has reportedly developed a contingency plan to develop border safe havens for refugees within Syrian territory. Thus far, the United States has officially committed to giving nonlethal assistance to the opposition within Syria, which could include communications equipment.

To pressure Assad to end violence against the population and ultimately make an exit will require more U.S. assistance for the opposition within Syria. In the short term, the United States should share limited intelligence with the opposition concerning the deployment and movement of Assad regime forces — security, military, and paramilitary Shabiha — within Syria, especially as they approach population centers for an assault. This will help alleviate the effects of Assad’s “whack-a-mole” approach to the opposition, in which regime forces attempt to clear areas — a tactic that drives up death tolls and refugee flows — but cannot hold them.

Second, the United States should intensify its examination of the opposition within Syria, both those entities practicing violent and nonviolent resistance against the regime. Such study should include ways to support popular self-defense alongside civil resistance, as two sides of the opposition coin. A key first step would be to intensify the process of identifying groups with which Washington could work that not only share Washington’s short-term goal of ousting Assad but its long-term goals as well, including a secular post-Assad Syria whose government respects minority rights.

Third, Washington should immediately expand contingency planning about possible direct U.S. military support as part of actions to head off massacres or a humanitarian disaster in the country. This includes supporting the creation, with allies such as Turkey, of safe havens inside Syria.


The Annan plan’s failure demonstrates that the UN process going forward may be able to treat the symptoms of the disease — the humanitarian fallout from the crisis — but is unlikely to cure the disease itself — the minority Assad regime’s brutal rule over a majority Sunni population that is the youngest in the Middle East outside the Palestinian territories. Washington should continue to press for UN Security Council resolutions or statements condemning Assad, but to base its approach on the likelihood of international consensus on the Syria crisis would be unwise.

The best means of whittling away at the Assad regime’s support base continues to be exposing the regime’s brutal response to dilemmas posed by the civil and armed opposition inside Syria. What is going on in Syria is not a civil war but an armed and unarmed insurrection against a regime that responded with extreme brutality to peaceful protest. The Syrian opposition in exile organized under the Syrian National Council may be rife with divisions. But as the conflict in Syria has morphed into a civil and armed insurgency against the regime, coordination among atomized opposition groups inside Syria has intensified for reasons of sheer survival. The United States needs to find ways to promote, assist, and influence that trend.

Andrew J. Tabler is Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author, most recently, of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.

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Iran: The Haggling Begins

Walter Russell Mead

The National Interest, April 9, 2012

They will be biting their fingernails in Israel as the focus in the Iranian nuclear controversy shifts to bargaining now that, apparently, Iran has agreed to another round of talks on its nuclear program.

On the one hand, Iran has a clear treaty right to develop and use nuclear technology for civilian energy purposes. On the other, it has failed to satisfy the IAEA (to say nothing of the intelligence agencies of a great many countries) that it is operating its nuclear program within the treaty’s conditions. The question is, what comes next?

While both Israel and the US would ideally like for Iran to agree to forgo the exercise of that right, a military strike against a country exercising treaty rights to which the US had agreed would be on very weak ground. What all parties (even the Israelis) would prefer is an agreement that kept Iran’s nuclear activities well short of anything that could lead to a bomb, and under an inspection regime thorough enough so that (with the help of intelligence information), the world can be confident that Iran is in fact observing its treaty obligations even as it exercises its treaty rights.

That sounds simple in outline, but in practice the details of such an arrangement would be fiendishly difficult. It would require a clear agreement on the level of enrichment of uranium to be carried out in Iran, a clear agreement on a more intrusive and systemic inspections program than Iran has in the past been willing to accept, and more transparency in the financing and management of Iran’s nuclear activities.

The Iranian negotiating style favors taking refuge in these complications, putting forward partial proposals and then perhaps pulling them back again, offsetting a concession here by making new demands over there, and refusing to reveal a bottom line until the eleventh — or even the twelfth — hour. Mixed signals from Iran in the run up to the new negotiations suggest that this style will be very much in play.

For those concerned that Iran is simply playing for time, this negotiating style reinforces suspicion. Dragging out the negotiations, hinting and evading, alternating between hard and soft approaches would all be natural strategies for a country playing for time as it edged closer to a nuclear threshold.

At the same time, unless very carefully handled, the substance of the negotiations can throw the US and its partners into disarray. Iran could make an offer that satisfied the Obama administration, for example, but left Israel feeling insecure. It could make an offer that failed to reassure Germany and the Europeans, but gave Russia and China cover to oppose new sanctions at the UN. It can make an offer that brings sympathy from important non-nuclear signatories to the NPT (non-proliferation treaty) like Turkey and Brazil, significantly increasing the political cost to Washington of further confrontation. It could make an offer that at least temporarily satisfied the IAEA bureaucracy but left others still suspicious.

One thinks of Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom. How many righteous men must be found in the city for God to decide to spare it: 100? 50? 10? 5?  What is the level of uranium enrichment that Iran can pursue without triggering a military response? 90%? 20? 18? 10? 3.5? 0?

Balanced against that is another question: what is the top oil price that recession-wracked Europe and the US can tolerate as the sanctions bite and the negotiations drag on — $100 a barrel, $150, $300? And for President Obama in the months before the election, still another question comes into play: what is the tipping point between American war-weariness and American fears for Israel and of Iran?

There are other complications. Would, for example, the Iranians give ground on the nuclear issue to keep Assad in power? Is this a trade that others would accept? The US withdrawal from Iraq has reduced the ability of Iran to use Iraq as a bargaining chip in its relations with the US, but Iran might be able to divide the US and the EU from the Arab League by a mix of offers over Syria and Iraq that played to what many in the region see as the real issue: Sunni-Shiite relations. This conflict affects Turkish-Iranian relations and puts the Gulf Arabs in the camp of Iran hawks — a factor that plays a larger role in the stand of some European countries than is generally understood by a press that has a hard time looking beyond Israel.

Israel — which will not be part of the negotiations — faces the toughest questions of all. Many Israelis believe Israel will soon lose the ability to create a significant setback to the Iranian program through military means. Quite a few Israeli experts believe that in effect that point has already been reached — that Israel today could not inflict enough damage on Iran’s nuclear program to justify the risks and costs of a military strike. If Iran can take Israel out of the military picture through playing for time at the negotiating table with the six powers handling the file (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany), it will have gained some significant breathing space, and handed a significant political defeat to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

One important consideration will be the degree of trust that the Israelis have that Washington is committed to rejecting any settlement that Israel absolutely cannot live with. US and Israeli interests are not identical on the Iranian question: while both countries do not want Iran to get the bomb and in the last analysis seem willing to act to stop it, the level of concern, the military capacity to act and the trade-offs between action and inaction at various stages of Iranian preparedness are all different. Israel naturally wants to pull the US toward its position; the US administration equally naturally from its point of view does not want the tail to wag the dog.

An additional complicating factor: ideology. One core element of Zionist ideology, present from the beginning of the modern movement but significantly strengthened by the events of the 1940s, is that Israel must ensure that the vital, life-and-death decisions affecting Jews are made by Jews. The Jewish people must have the same kind of sovereign right to determine their fate that other peoples do. The question of the Iranian nuclear drive is clearly a vital one for the state of Israel; it would be painful and difficult for committed Israeli Zionists to accept that the US rather than Israel has the final say over what happens on this issue.  Letting Iran pass the point where Israel could decide this issue on its own would, in this view, be a betrayal of one of the core principles of the Zionist movement. From both a personal and a political standpoint that is something no Israeli prime minister, and especially for one from Likud, would do lightly.

There are many situations in which people outside government cannot keep track of all the moving parts in a complex and at least partially confidential negotiation. This is one of them: if these negotiations prove to be substantive enough to continue past a first meeting, there will be a lot of empty commentary and speculation from the press. But some of the key moves and key calculations will be hidden from outsiders.

To make sense of what’s happening, keep your eyes on the following:

  •     the enrichment numbers being floated in Iran, Washington, Israel and Berlin
  •     the discussion over the nature of the inspection regime that Iran will accept
  •     the discussion in Israel over whether and when to strike
  •     American polling numbers on the economy, Iran and the 2012 vote
  •     relations between the US and Israeli governments
  •     regional developments from Turkey, Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and the Gulf in the Sunni-Shiite war
  •     the price of oil.

This focus won’t tell you what is going to happen in the crisis and when, but it will help you grasp whether negotiations seem to be making progress and how the calculations of the various players may change. Right now war before November does not seem likely, but that calculation could change.

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