March 30, 2012

Syria agrees to ceasefire - don't hold your breath

According to pronouncements from the United Nations and Syrian media, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has agreed to a ceasefire between his armed forces and the opposition, supposedly paving the way for some form of negotiations between the two sides. This alleged ceasefire is part of a deal arranged by none other than former United Nations Secretary General and now chief envoy Kofi Annan, whose past accomplishments at this sort of thing are pretty much nonexistent.

The agreement between Annan and al-Asad, announced on March 27 by Annan, includes six points supposedly endorsed by the Syrian president. Annan claims that the agreement includes an "immediate" ceasefire, access for humanitarian organizations to the areas affected by the violence, negotiations that will lead to a multiparty democracy, release of political prisoners and access to Syria by foreign media.

Does this sound familiar? It should. In November, the Syrian regime reached an agreement with the Arab League by which it would withdraw its armed forces from the cities and start political reforms. Al-Asad's acquiescence to the Arab League was in reaction to a threat by the organization to suspend Syria from its ranks. It was basically ignored by the regime; artillery attacks on the restless cities of Homs, Hamah and Idlib continued as al-Asad announced his acceptance of the plan.

In February of this year, the government continued to attempt to deflect world condemnation of the regime's violent repression of its citizens - it staged a sham* referendum asking the Syrian people if they wanted a new constitution. As with most elections and referendums in Syria, it passed overwhelmingly. The new constitution sounds good, but it appears that the regime is paying about as much attention to the new one as it did to the old one.

Al-Asad learned well from both his father and his Iranian allies. From his father he learned to rule Syria with an iron fist. In 1982, Hafiz al-Asad deployed the much-feared sarayat al-difa' (The Defense Companies), a regime protection unit of the Syrian army under command of his brother Rifa't, to put down an eerily similar Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hamah, the scene of much of the violence over the last year.

Rifa't's ruthless destruction of a good portion of the city center and the killing of as many as 25,000 citizens is regarded as "The Hamah Rules" - how the al-Asad's handle dissension. (See Syria: The invasion of Hamah for more.) We are seeing those rules being applied today. The Syrian army's regime protection units - in particular the Republican Guard and the 4th Armor Division - are repeating the events of 1982 across the country, having killed over 9000 citizens thus far.

From the Iranians, he learned how to deal with the feckless West. Agree to talks, and do nothing. Just as the Iranians have delayed any effective sanctions (although this may be changing) by agreeing to talk, then refusing to talk, then agreeing to talk, etc., Bashar al-Asad agreed with the Arab League last year and with Kofi Annan now to buy time and space. He has no intention of opening up Syria to a multi-party democracy, releasing political prisoners, allowing foreign media into the country, or stopping the repression of any dissent.

Bashar al-Asad will not give up power. If Kofi Annan thinks he will, he is either naive or delusional. All Mr. Annan has done is provided the Syrian president with a way to stave off sterner action against Syria by the West. Do not look for the Syrian army to return to garrison anytime soon.

* I love using the word "sham" when talking about Syria. It is a play on words - الشام (ash sham) is the Arabic word for Damascus (and formerly for the area that is now Syria). It is also the name of a car jointly produced by a Syrian-Iranian consortium. See my earlier article on the car, What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company.