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Syria: No time to lose
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 05 - 04 - 2012

One must hope against hope that the loud explosions which reverberated across Homs and the clashes which were reported in several areas across Syria yesterday do not signal the end of a peace plan proposed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and endorsed by the UN Security Council to break the Syrian impasse. The plan offers the best hope for Syria and its leaders to avoid the fate of Libya and Yemen. But President Bashar Al-Assad still behaves as though he has not learned anything from the recent history of the Middle East.
This is unfortunate because the Annan plan does not call for Al-Assad to step down though many Arab countries believe that only a regime change will put an end to the political violence that has already claimed thousands of innocent lives. The plan requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities and observe a ceasefire. Rebel fighters are to immediately follow by ceasing violence.
The point not to be missed is that even the Obama administration sees in the plan the best opportunity “to put an end to the violence, facilitate much-needed humanitarian assistance and advance a Syrian-led political transition,” as the US envoy to the UN put it. The operative phrase is “Syrian-led political transition.” Al-Assad has agreed to an April 10 deadline to implement the plan. But the reports coming from Syria are not reassuring.
The opposition thinks the regime was racing to crush opponents ahead of the ceasefire deadline by carrying out intense raids, arrests and shelling. Is Assad trying to manipulate the plan and use it to buy time while his forces continue to crack down? One need not believe everything that the opposition says. But we must remember that Al-Assad's response to various peace plans in the past has been that of President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen: Reneging on commitments made to the GCC, Arab League or Europeans.
In this context Amnesty International's latest statement makes disturbing reading. It says people are still being arrested across Syria, including 13 students who were beaten at their school in the Damascus suburb of Daraya. All this happened just hours after the government said it had started to withdraw troops from some cities in compliance with an international ceasefire plan. The organization said it has received the names of 232 individuals, including 17 children, who were reported to have been killed since Syria agreed to the plan on March 27. Syrian security forces have attacked and shelled the cities of Homs, Hama, Saraqeb, Daraa and Nawa this week.
Al-Assad should not be allowed to use the Annan plan merely as a cover to go on killing his own people. Russia's foreign minister may criticize “ultimatums and artificial deadlines” for ending the violence, but he should not forget that violence has so far cost 9,000 lives. Russia and other friends of Syria should force Damascus to implement the political component of the Annan plan. To avoid this by raising the specter of a civil war will not do.
Something approaching a civil war has been under way in Syria for months already. Worse things may follow if Al-Assad persists in his dilatory tactics. There are already calls from some Arab quarters for arming the rebels. Western countries are considering options such as the creation of a safe zone in Syria, more punitive sanctions, deeper diplomatic isolation and if everything fails some kind of military intervention. In short, Syria faces a tragedy with the worst features of Libya, Yemen and Iraq.
President Al-Assad has to consider whether he should fight a losing battle to save a discredited regime at the cost of a nation. He should remember that in the final analysis a Syrian tragedy will be an Arab tragedy. __

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