Adrian Hamilton: Syria's opposition can now turn this ceasefire to its advantage

World View

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The Independent Online

Whether the Syrian ceasefire holds may be the question that most of the world, including Western leaders, is asking at the moment. And it does obviously matter so far as saved lives and protected civilians are concerned. But, renewed firing or not, the question remains, as it has from the beginning: can the opposition unseat the Assad family and change power in Syria?

Kofi Annan has been trying to do more than just produce a ceasefire. He has been attempting a diplomatic solution to the growing civil war in the country. He has called his a "peace plan" and bent his efforts – and they are considerable – to try to bring all the parties, outside and inside the country, into a common consensus.

The effort is noble. The likelihood of success is virtually nil. In diplomatic terms, he has achieved what might have seemed impossible even a few weeks ago: getting the Arab League and the West to retreat from their demands that President Bashar al-Assad step down as the pre-condition of any settlement.

If Assad had been cleverer, he would have seized on this to pull back the tanks and worked on the fact that most people in Syria and the world outside wanted an end to the bloodshed. The constant images of pounded buildings and dead bodies have aroused fury against him, but also a feeling that the killing must be stopped by whatever means available. As that excludes for the time being any direct military intervention, a political settlement seems the only other option. It is still possible that the regime in Damascus could follow this course. Mr Annan clearly hopes so. The trouble is that Assad has constantly passed up the opportunities whenever they have been presented to him.

The reason is blunt and brutal. This is not a fight about democracy in which the ruling regime could, like the generals in Burma or the king in Morocco, give a little in order to preserve themselves in power. This is, like other movements in the Arab world, a revolt against the whole nexus of corruption and internal suppression which keeps the Assad family in wealth as well as power.

Give in with even minor concessions, the regime fears, and the whole edifice will start to crumble as ethnic, religious and regional differences surface. No one need believe for a moment Damascus's claims that it still has the support of most of the population. But it can, and does, play to fear – fear both of the brutality of the security services and fear of the chaos which civil war and religious conflict might bring.

The adoption of a ceasefire represents not so much a desire for any of the parties directly concerned to stop fighting, so much as a sense of exhausted stalemate.

The authorities have managed to use their heavier weaponry to reduce to ruins the places of resistance. But they have not been able to crush all signs of opposition. Their opponents have failed to set up viable independent centres of power, as the Libyan rebels did in Benghazi, but they have survived the bombardments to fight on. Assad's hope at this point is that, by stopping the bombardments but keeping his troops in position, he can get the world off his back and starve the rebels into giving up or fading away.

The opposition's hope is that they can use the period of calm to recuperate, re-supply and bring out their supporters on to the streets in peaceful protest. That is what will achieve their purpose, if anything can. Assad has the upper hand militarily but, if the ceasefire is followed by a resumption of mass and peaceful protest demanding his resignation, what can he do but return to suppression in front of the cameras?

It was never worth the West fretting over a North Korean satellite

So the North Koreans have launched their new satellite, to the fury of the United States, Japan and indeed Britain. Or, at least, they have tried to.

According to initial reports from the US and China, it dropped back down to Earth, as did the long succession of failed rocket launches before it. Prior to the launch, there was speculation as to whether Japan would shoot it down, as it had warned, if it came near their airspace. It would, Hillary Clinton warned, mark a breach of the international agreement North Korea has signed, and bring on a new period of confrontation.

Maybe we have all, the North Koreans as much as the West, been making far too much of what should have been dismissed as a piece of wasteful showmanship on behalf of Pyongyang. North Korea already has nuclear weapons. Détente in any form won't make Pyongyang give them up.

What will do for North Korea eventually is the implosion of its economy and the resentment of its own people. If détente can help this along by opening up the country to the world, so much the better, although for precisely the same reason the regime may refuse it. But jumping up and down over this launch will do nothing.