By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
In late March, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan persuaded Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to agree to a sensible plan to stop the killing in Syria and start a process of genuine dialogue. Unfortunately, that plans seems highly unlikely to succeed.
That is because the Syrian regime is not fundamentally interested in dialogue with the political opposition. It seeks instead to brutally eradicate that opposition.
Unfortunately, such a strategy can be effective if a government is fully willing to be as brutal as Bashar al-Assad has been.
In this context, it is not clear to me that a plan like Kofi Annan’s could work unless it had some muscle behind it. But there is a limit to what people on the outside can do for Syria. Syria is not Libya, where the opposition was able to gain geographic control of certain parts of the country, including the key city of Benghazi. Libya had an east-west division that allowed the opposition to coalesce and then retrieve supplies through Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.
None of these factors apply in Syria. The Syrian opposition has not been able to create a geographic stronghold and it is therefore difficult to supply that opposition. In this context, it’s hard to see where the muscle needed to force dialogue could come from.
Russia, which has great influence on Syria, is unlikely to put any kind of real pressure on the country. Russia seems to view Syria as its last ally in the Middle East. During the Cold War, Russia had an array of allies in the region. The Middle East was divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, that alliance structure broke down. Most of the Soviet allies left the Russian sphere of influence. The Russians are left with Syria, and they are very reluctant to give it up.
America does not have much leverage on the Syrian government via coercion or anything else. So without Russian pressure, it’s difficult to see how Kofi Annan’s diplomacy could work.
Annan’s plan is well intentioned. Annan himself is a very intelligent man. But ultimately you cannot have this kind of diplomacy work without a credible threat of force. And I don’t see a credible threat of force.
I think the reality therefore in Syria is that you’re going to have a low-grade insurgency. The government probably won’t be able to crush the opposition entirely. But it seems highly unlikely that the insurgency will be able to gain much ground.
The one fact that might change this dynamic is that Syria is not an oil-rich country like Iran. Syria does not have vast amounts of money pouring into its coffers every year. It is being supported by Russia and Iran. We don’t know the extent of that support, but it’s quite conceivable that the Syrian government is going to run out of money eventually.
Money is what has allowed Bashar al-Assad to keep the Syrian army and the intelligence apparatus on his side. It has also helped him keep a core element of the Sunni elite from turning against him. If the money flow to Syria slows to a trickle, you might begin to see defections from many of these key groups. This would be a sign that the rats are leaving the sinking ship.