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Jeffrey Laurenti Headshot

Giving Up on a 'Syrian-Led' Peace

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There are still some patriotic citizens willing to join the cabinet of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; he swore in new ministers Tuesday. But if any of them still imagined that the unrest gripping the country could be safely contained, they now have heard differently.

Perhaps they heard the artillery pounding Damascus suburbs after a surprise rebel assault on a base of the president's Republican Guard. Perhaps they saw the wreckage of a pro-Assad television station stormed by rebels killing three journalists.

What the new ministers certainly heard, at their investiture, was the president telling them they are "in a real state of war from all angles." Eerily echoing Josef Goebbels' summons to total war, the president added: "When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war."

As bulwarks of the Assads' security state become suddenly insecure, the embattled elite's risky gamble on violent repression is bringing both the country and the government to the brink of unraveling. The Baathist regime had viewed the peace process advanced by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan as leading inexorably to its loss of power, but the alternative it has chosen seems increasingly likely to doom it to annihilation.

While Damascus remains blind to the handwriting on the wall, its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian friends seem rather more realistic about the prospects. This weekend, when Annan convenes his contact group of major powers to mobilize their concerted muscle behind his updated plan, those friends need to double down on Assad to implement all of its provisions, immediately.

By some accounts, negotiations on a transitional regime are already far advanced. Raghida Dergham of Al Hayat reports that at the Mexico meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, where press photos suggested a certain lack of personal chemistry, the two nonetheless agreed on the framework of an imposed settlement to end the fighting, remove the most offensive people in the current government, and patch together an inclusive coalition to replace it.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hints that such a deal is in the works, telling reporters that Annan "has developed his own very concrete road map for political transition" from the Assad regime. "We believe it embodies the principles needed for any political transition in Syria that could lead to a peaceful, democratic and representative outcome reflecting the will of the Syrian people."

The former U.N. secretary-general had not intended to fashion a solution himself. He was scrupulously impartial with respect to all the Syrian factions when he first proposed his six-point framework, which was intended to open the door to negotiations among the Syrian government and the full spectrum of opposition groups. It was a "Syrian-led" process that was supposed to hammer out the country's transition.

But as Annan has become increasingly outspoken in blaming the government for sabotaging the April plan, he has become equally convinced that the only way to end the downward spiral into a ruinous -- and possibly regional -- war is by the major powers stepping in together to shut the conflict down. His deputy, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, acknowledged as much when he told the U.N. Human Rights Council Wednesday that the opposing Syrian sides "appear to not believe in the possibility of a political solution" with each other.

"The opposition remains divided between those who favor a peaceful political solution, those who reject any understanding with the government, and those who support continued armed resistance," Guéhenno told the council. And it is those divisions, along with concerns about Qaeda-style jihadists entering the Syrian fray, that have deterred Western governments from committing themselves to armed backing for the insurrection -- notwithstanding the rise of an overtly pro-rebel lobby in Washington and calls from conservatives like John McCain and Mitt Romney to up the arms ante against the government.

Russian and Iranian diplomats around the United Nations claim it was their governments' intense pressure that had led Assad to accept the Annan peace plan in early April -- an acceptance on which he soon reneged. The test now for Russia will be to line up the commitment of those parts of the existing regime that are destined to be part of the power-sharing arrangement to compel the Assad hard-liners to accept the transition (and presumably their own departure) to avert their mutual assured destruction.

This is one test we have to hope the Russians can pass. They have been notably muted in their reaction to NATO's warnings following Syria's downing of a Turkish reconnaissance plan that had violated Syrian airspace. Perhaps they find it useful for Damascus to realize the military risks to which its penchant for confrontation can lead. The next several days may show whether the realization sinks in.