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In Syrian peace plan, al-Assad seems in driver's seat

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with soldiers at the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs on Tuesday.

Sana/Reuters

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad toured the ruins of the Baba Amr neighbourhood in the Syrian city of Homs Tuesday, shaking his head at the devastation wrought by several weeks of heavy bombardment and blaming it all on the rebel forces opposed to his regime.

"The state gave those who had strayed from the right path every chance to surrender their weapons but they rejected and escalated their terrorism," he told the people ."So we had to act to bring back peace and security and to impose the law."

There was an air of smugness as he toured the area. And the president, dressed casually in a blue blazer and open-neck blue shirt, had every reason to be pleased. Not only have his forces remained in firm control of the country – if at the expense of 9,000 lives, the United Nations now estimates – the mission to find a solution to the conflict, led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, has come up with an offer Mr. al-Assad cannot refuse.

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Indeed, the key to the success of Mr. Annan's Six Point Plan lies in what is it does not say. At no point does it call for the Mr. al-Assad to step down or delegate power.

This is in sharp contrast to the earlier, far more judgmental Arab League proposals, endorsed by the UN Security Council, that called for Mr. al-Assad to cede at least some of his powers to his vice-president in order to negotiate Mr. al-Assad's transition from office.

Instead, the Annan plan calls only for a commitment by Syria to stop the fighting, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach victims, to release detainees more quickly, to allow journalists into the country, to respect freedom to demonstrate peacefully and to initiate an internal Syrian dialogue for political reform.

Even those points are gently worded. For example, Syria "should" cease troop movements toward population centres and "should" end the use of heavy weapons, and should "begin" the pullback of military concentrations. All this leaves ample room for Syrian interpretation.

As for negotiating Syria's future political system, the Annan points call only for Syria to "commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the envoy [Mr. Annan].

All this makes the scheme more acceptable to Mr. al-Assad, and his allies in Moscow and Beijing, all of whom rejected the earlier plans in which Damascus got all the blame and the opposition militants none at all.

Getting Damascus and its Russian and Chinese backers to sign up was deemed necessary by Mr. Annan as a starting point, and viewed as acceptable by Washington, London and Paris, the other permanent Security Council members along with Moscow and Beijing.

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Indeed, people with personal knowledge of Mr. al- Assad say such an approach is the only way to bring about political reform in the country, including democratizing the presidency, and possibly getting Mr. al-Assad to step down.

In the view of a former senior Syrian official now critical of the regime, Mr. al-Assad will never just leave office and hand the keys over to the opposition. "It's unrealistic to expect that. There would be chaos."

The Syrian leader could be willing to negotiate a transition over time that would lead to elections for a government and of a president, but would have to have guarantees of safety from the only country he can rely on: Russia. With Moscow's agreement this week, that now appears to be forthcoming.

But what makes the Annan plan appealing to Mr. al-Assad makes it hard for the opposition to swallow. The Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army, among others, have insisted they will never talk to Mr. al-Assad, and never agree to take any steps toward ending hostilities until he's gone.

To offset that negative reaction, the Annan plan also goes easy on the opposition. Crucially, they call for military forces to make the first move in ending the fighting – a significant concession by the al-Assad regime that had insisted on mutual cessation.

As an added incentive for the opposition, the plan envisions a two-hour humanitarian break in government fighting each day, and the possibility of an accelerated rate of release of opposition members jailed by the government. It just might be enough to entice a representative number of opposition people to sign up, and defer their hopes for Mr. al-Assad to step down to a later date.

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