Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has 'accepted' a peace plan set forth by former U.N. Secretary-General and special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, after a little over a year an an estimated 9,000 lives later. The plan, also endorsed by the UN Security Council, is laid out in six points which involve withdrawal of weapons and troops from high population centers, a corridor for humanitarian assistance with a scheduled ceasefire, the release of prisoners, and access for journalists.
On the same day that the peace plan was announced, pictures of Assad surfaced showing him visiting the besieged area of Homs, where he went to thank soldiers for keeping the opposition at bay. Homs was not only a flashpoint for Syria uprising, but also the city where his wife's family originally comes from. Assad was shown standing beside a mosque that had been recently shelled. I can't help but think he was just a stone's throw away from the remains of innocent children.
Also that same day, the media reported that an Assad representative met with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, one of the regime’s few supporters, which begs the question: Will Assad's 'acceptance' of the peace plan actually mean any implementation of it?
The most important component for any agreement to succeed has been included in Annan's plan: allowing humanitarian aid and access for journalists into opposition-held areas. However, the agreement does not call for Assad to step down from power, rendering it useless. The agreement represents a keychain on which the actual key to real peace should hang from.
Even the agreement's 'smaller' concessions of aid and press may go out the window should Assad decide, because he is ultimately still the one in power. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton tellingly said, Assad has a "history of over-promising and under-delivering, [this] commitment must now be matched by immediate actions."
Her comment is particularly poignant given the continued violence in the country as troops target rebels along the border with Lebanon. Syrian activists have claimed that nearly 60 people were killed in clashes with government forces on the very day of the announcement.
The UN took a regime change off the table because of Russia, China, and the UN Security Council veto. Of course, the agreement could have gone forward without the UN Security Council, but would have carried even less weight than it does now and may have been ‘accepted’ by Assad just for show.
Why was veto power the determining factor in whether to call for regime change? At first, China and Russia claimed the accusations against Syria were biased and did not take into account the violence by rebel forces and any political and social upheaval the rebels may have caused. This position highlighted their own deep insecurities. Calling for regime change would have put Russia and China in a hypocritical position with their own people. They only backed the plan because regime change was taken off the table. Importantly, Russia could actually pressure Syria to change if it wants to. As Matthew Rojansky points out here, Russia “can withhold arms sales, deny al-Assad a safe haven, and freeze the regime’s financial assets” if it really wanted to affect change.
Once again, power struggles are the stuff that makes politics. Unfortunately, it is also what has killed so many and injured countless others. Due to Russia's and China's insecurities and veto power, Assad may not actually implement any of those terms in the peace plan, since he alone still holds the power to decide.