Skip to main content

A game changer for Syria?

By Randa Slim, Special to CNN
April 20, 2012 -- Updated 1211 GMT (2011 HKT)
An anti-Syria government protester with a pre-Baath Syrian flag, which has been adopted by the opposition movement.
An anti-Syria government protester with a pre-Baath Syrian flag, which has been adopted by the opposition movement.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Randa Slim: The peace plan for Syria proposed by Kofi Annan is doomed to fail
  • Slim: After more than a year of uprisings, Syria is still stuck in a violent stalemate
  • She says one possible game changer is if the protests in Syria become more widespread
  • Slim: Members in local councils are Syria's best hope for future leadership

Editor's note: Randa Slim is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a research fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow her on Twitter.

(CNN) -- The six-point peace plan for Syria proposed by Kofi Annan is doomed to fail for one simple reason: Neither President Bashar al-Assad nor the government opposition is interested in making it work.

For al-Assad, full implementation of the plan, which includes a political settlement through dialogue and respect for the rights of citizens to demonstrate peacefully, will bring an end to his regime. From the onset of the uprisings, his government knew that a repeat of the protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square or Bahrain's Pearl Square in Damascus or Aleppo will mean regime change. Al-Assad and his inner circle are not about to create conditions that are conducive for such sit-ins just because the Annan plan calls on them to do so.

For the opposition groups, Annan could spend all the time he wants on negotiations, but any talks not predicated on al-Assad's stepping aside will not be acceptable. The activists who are spearheading Syria's revolution insist that the opposition exile leadership has a limited mandate and that is to discuss details for the transfer of power from the Assad family to the opposition.

Randa Slim
Randa Slim

The bottom line is that the two main protagonists in the conflict look at the Annan plan as a means to achieve their respective, mutually exclusive objectives.

By agreeing to the Annan plan, al-Assad pursues a dual-track strategy: He appeases his Russian and Iranian allies, who have been pressuring him to accept a political solution, while working to kill his way out of the crisis under the pretext that he is confronting "armed terrorists and gangs."

The opposition wants the cease-fire in order to field mass protests. As one activist from Hama put it to me recently: "We don't need military intervention, we don't need humanitarian corridors, we don't need safe areas. Enforce the cease-fire and millions will march toward the presidential palace demanding Assad's ouster."

After more than a year of uprisings, Syria is still stuck in a violent stalemate. Al-Assad has not been able to crush the opposition, and opposition seems nowhere near to dislodging al-Assad. Increasingly, the conflict is being framed in existential terms, with some involved becoming more radicalized.

The majority of Alawites believe their physical survival is at stake, because they are convinced al-Assad's demise will engender wide-scale revenge killings on them. Hence, they will not accept a solution that will produce a new regime in which they are not guaranteed a leading role. Similarly, the opposition groups believe that if they stop now and al-Assad remains in power, he will hunt them down.

Absent a game changer that will tip the balance in favor of one side or the other, the crisis in Syria will become a full-blown sectarian war pitting Sunnis against Alawites, which will likely spill over into the neighboring countries of Iraq and Lebanon.

Although military options have been considered by the West, it's hard to say whether that would make a difference in reversing the dynamics in the country. A military operation might cause a regional war involving Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with each country supporting its allies in Syria.

For now, Iran's Supreme Leader has cast his support firmly with al-Assad. A well-informed Iranian source told me that the Iranian regime will support al-Assad no matter what until the end. On the other hand, Russia's Syria policy seems to be in flux judging by its vote in the United Nations recently. It's too early to tell whether Russia will ease al-Assad out the way Saudi Arabia did in the case of Yemen's Abdullah Saleh. Russia and Iran will probably not abandon al-Assad until they are part of the deal-making process about Syria's future government.

One possible game changer is if the protest movement in Syria becomes widespread and covers large stretches of the country.

To date, only four of Syria's 14 governorates constitute the major hubs of the protest movement: Homs, Hama, Idlib and Daraa. While we have seen protests in other regions, they have not been as sustained and extensive as those in the four governorates. This is partly due to the state of fragmentation in the opposition ranks, especially among the exile groups, which do not inspire confidence among fence-sitters.

Although large segments of fence-sitters including businessmen have come around to supporting the opposition, many remain ambivalent because they doubt the opposition will succeed in overthrowing al-Assad. This perception is reinforced by the fact that Annan's plan does not call for al-Assad to step down -- a detail that is not missed by the Assad regime propaganda machine.

While the exile opposition remains divided, there are hopeful signs that the opposition ranks within Syria are becoming better organized, better trained and gaining legitimacy.

The future leaders of Syria will not come from the Syrian National Council or the National Coordination Committee for Change; they will emerge from the ranks of the revolutionary councils that are forming in different parts of the country.

These councils bring together an eclectic mix of the most active local coordinating committees, independent activists, community and business leaders and military defectors. They are putting in place an administrative infrastructure that is akin to a local provincial council, handling everything from media affairs to helping families who lost their homes to providing legal aid to jailed activists. They are also coordinating with each other to protect relief supply lines that cross their respective territories. In the process, the leaders in these councils, who hail from Syria's different religious and ethnic groups, are developing political skills, cultivating local constituencies and learning through trial and error the business of governing.

In a country that is increasingly polarized along sectarian and ethnic lines, these councils can perhaps provide the glue that keeps the country stitched together.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Randa Slim.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT