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Syrian soldiers secure a checkpoint in Homs Jan. 23, 2012. Syria on Monday rebuffed as a "conspiracy" an Arab League call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down in favour of a unity government to calm a 10-month-old revolt in which thousands of Syrians have been killed. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
Syrian soldiers secure a checkpoint in Homs Jan. 23, 2012. Syria on Monday rebuffed as a "conspiracy" an Arab League call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down in favour of a unity government to calm a 10-month-old revolt in which thousands of Syrians have been killed. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

MIDEAST

Arab League's new plan for Syria rejected Add to ...

The Arab League’s bold new plan for ending the killing in Syria and ushering in a democratic regime is being criticized by both sides in the conflict. Syria called the plan, which envisions President Bashar al-Assad handing power to his Vice-President to hold negotiations with a national unity government, part of the conspiracy the regime has been fighting against for the past 10 months.

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“Syria believes that much of the international campaign against it is because of its relationship with Iran,” said Mohamed Marandi, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, currently a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut. “All these countries attacking Syria is just another way of getting at the regime in Iran.”

That is the reason Qatar and Saudi Arabia are leading the charge for a Syria settlement, he added, referring to the two countries who most often have objected to Iranian policies in the region, and now are the most outspoken critics of Mr. al-Assad. “Do you think they’d be doing this if Syria wasn’t an ally of Iran?” Mr. Marandi asked.

“Syria’s rejection of the plan was to be expected. But look closely and you’ll see the Syrian National Congress, the main opposition organization outside the country, also has rejected it as presented, insisting that Mr. al-Assad must first resign before the group would engage in negotiations with anyone in the regime.”

That condition is a deal breaker for the Syrian President. Many Syrians and Syria watchers acknowledge that unless there’s something in it for Mr. al-Assad, he’ll fight to the death rather than surrender his power.

They make the point that negotiations between a representative of the President and representatives of the opposition would focus on the kind of system that would replace the autocratic leader. Perhaps conducted under guarantees offered by a country such as Russia, the negotiations also would allow for Mr. al-Assad to leave office over a period of time – with that period to be determined – and with a guarantee of safety. All of those are points that the SNC, the opposition group, says it can’t accept.

“The opposition is badly divided,” says Salim al-Hoss, a former Lebanese prime minister with considerable connections to Syria. “They don’t seem to know what they stand for.”

Indeed, some opposition groups inside the country, such as the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, already have said they are prepared to enter negotiations. “There isn’t yet a critical mass one way or the other,” says Mohamed Chatah, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington and a foreign-policy adviser to Saad Hariri, leader of the opposition Future Movement in Lebanon.

Both Mr. Hariri and Mr. Chatah are rooting for the opposition in Syria, hoping that the ouster of Mr. al-Assad will weaken Syria’s support of Hezbollah, their political nemesis.

“For the negotiated settlement to succeed there needs to be three things,” said a former senior Syrian official with inside knowledge of the regime. First, the President must recognize that he can’t win by violent means, he said. Second, the opposition, or at least most of it, must agree on how to proceed, and third, there must be an outside party that can bring both sides to the table and guarantee them that there will be a handover of power and that all parties, including the President, will be safe from harm or prosecution.

“Russia,” the former official said, “is the only party that could effectively play that role.” For its part, Russia said Monday that the use of its UN Security Council veto to block international sanctions and armed intervention in Syria was as far as Moscow could go in defence of the al-Assad regime. Moscow called for the Syrian leader now to take what it termed appropriate action.

Mr. al-Assad “should read this position unequivocally: reforms, an end to violence, free elections,” said Mikhail Margelov, a senior lawmaker and a frequent emissary to Syria of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. “This is what the Syrian leadership should do immediately, today.”

The statement clearly sets out Russia’s support for both sides in the Syrian conflict. With a large and loyal army, and the grudging support of the majority of Syrians too afraid to stand up and protest against him, Mr. al-Assad could hold on to his office for a long while. “In that event, a lot of people will die,” the former Syrian official said. “He has to be made to see that negotiations are preferable.”

Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, agreed. “The Arab League plan is significant because it offers a third way, a solution that marks neither a complete victory for the Assad regime nor a complete victory for the protesters.”

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