Diplomacy is inching forward. This might not be obvious from the confusion that surrounded the recent Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul. Despite being at sixes and sevens about whether to arm the rebels or ease up on the demands that President Assad must go, Damascus has proposed a ceasefire date of Tuesday 10 April as a first step in implementing Kofi Annan’s six-point proposal. UN Security Council members have made it clear that they now expect the regime to live up to its promise and an Annan team has been dispatched to Damascus to work out how it will monitor implementation of the ceasefire.
There is plenty of reason for scepticism towards the promises of a leader who is responsible for deaths of thousands of his citizens and has broken his word repeatedly during this conflict. Nevertheless, Mr Annan’s patient diplomacy is starting to pay dividends.
First, the ceasefire date was not decreed from outside by the UN Security Council or Arab or western states but rather it was proposed by the regime itself. Second, Syria now faces a re-united Security Council. Both Russia and China have announced following Mr Annan’s visits that they support his plan. Third, there is under the plan the prospect of some humanitarian access to bring in desperately needed medical and other supplies. Fourth, if the plan does allow a measure of peace it will transform the context for the political negotiation that it calls for. Mr Assad has used the fear of chaos and violence to hold together the coalition of Syrian minorities that support his regime. With diminished violence and an orderly negotiation about the country’s future that card loses its value.
Mr Annan, whom I served at the UN between 1999 and 2006, has been criticised for not making Mr Assad’s departure an explicit condition of his proposals. However, whether with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, he has seen that if a demand for a dictator to step down is a pre-condition for negotiations, this makes diplomacy impossible. What leader signs his political death warrant before the bargaining starts? However, once around a negotiating table, an opposition in a situation such as Syria can move the agenda to that point because even a government’s supporters will recognise their interest will be better served by the departure of a leader with this much blood on his hands. He quickly becomes part of the problem not the solution.
Indeed there is growing suggestion that although the Alawites and other groups that have supported the regime continue to hold together, their patience with the Assad family is failing. The latter appears locked into a myopic, disengaged view of the conflict, which was reflected in their leaked family emails reported in The Guardian. In a negotiation their immediate future may quickly become less secure than it has appeared in recent weeks.
Diplomacy of course may not work. The Assads may well use it to play for time as they seek to re-consolidate military control. This is what they have done in the days running up to next Tuesday’s ceasefire.
And certainly change in Syria is unlikely to be easy or straightforward. But Mr Annan’s mission has at least raised the possibility that the national civil war or wider regional conflagration that looked increasingly likely a few weeks ago may be avoidable. To paraphrase Winston Churchill there may still be room for jaw-jaw not war-war.
Mark Malloch-Brown was the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN and author of ‘The Unfinished Global Revolution’. He is now at FTI Consulting