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Annan steps between rock and hard place in Syria

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TEL AVIV -- The twin blasts Saturday in Damascus and a similar car bomb in Aleppo on Sunday opened a new phase in the Syrian insurgency.

The blasts proved that despite the supremacy of the Syrian army, the Syrian opposition has moved into a new stage in its effort to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. Those who carried out the attacks proved they were well-trained and well-equipped with the necessary intelligence and, more important, they proved they were ready to challenge Assad's regime in its strongest targets, its two intelligence agencies.

These acts of enhanced Syrian subversion came on the eve of the arrival in Damascus of Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general and the current Arab League envoy to Damascus. His chances of success are limited. Annan knows, of course, the Syrian army and its security apparatus are capable of hitting hard at their opponents. He also realizes that despite Assad's supremacy, he is unable to crush his opponents. The same goes with the opposition. They have suffered more than 8,000 casualties but proved unable to topple the Assad regime.

On the other hand, and after a year of insurgency, the Assad regime appears to be solid and is solidly supported by the various minority groups within the country, not to mention, of course, the loyalty of his army and of his security services. Nevertheless, Assad is still unable to translate this military success into a political victory.

The same goes for the opposition. Weak militarily and divided politically, the opposition knows by now that toppling Assad is beyond their capability. The U.S. says there are today more than 300 Syrian opposition groups. They all want to topple Assad, but they cannot agree on a common policy. In such a situation, the U.S. fears al-Qaida might infiltrate their ranks.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries continue to finance the insurgents and to provide them with light arms and ammunition. For Saudi Arabia and its allies, fighting Syria is a proxy for fighting Iran and this tops any other consideration.

In such circumstances, the U.S. appears today more hesitant to be directly involved in the Syrian insurgency.

It also appears to be more ready to negotiate a deal. The U.S., however, is insisting Syria must first call for a ceasefire. Russia is known to favour a simultaneous ceasefire by the Syrian government and the insurgents. Syria rejects this Russian position and insists on total surrender of the insurgents.

It is in this complex situation Kofi Annan entered this week.

As an Arab League envoy, he has to take into consideration the Arab concerns. But as a former UN secretary general, he understands he cannot be one-sided. In a meeting in Europe last week, Annan shared his concerns with the Arab League secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi.

Annan is reported to be trying to seek an international (not just Arab) umbrella that will include Russia and China. Annan is speaking of a three-stage solution: a ceasefire, a mechanism for observing it and eventually a dialogue between the Syrian government and the insurgents.

Annan's mission could still be derailed by the Arab Persian Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia and Qatar consider the Syrian problem to be an Arab problem. Annan's greatest fear is that the Persian Gulf countries will derail his mission. They have the money and the political will to continue financing the Syrian insurgency.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2012 $sourceSection0

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.


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