Shashank Joshi: No straightforward way out of this political quagmire

Assad cannot comply with the UN demands without committing political suicide


Syria's ceasefire began crumbling as soon as it started. Fighting continued in Idlib. Tanks still sit in Homs. And yet, Kofi Annan's peace plan is still seen as the only game in town. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon insisted yesterday that "an opportunity for progress may now exist, on which we need to build".

The peace plan spells out a list of demands: a serious "political dialogue", the removal of government forces from cities and respect for right of protest. The problem is Assad cannot sincerely comply with these demands without committing political suicide.

Another unanswered question is who, exactly, will participate in this political dialogue. The formal opposition, dominated by the Syrian National Council, is mired in fratricidal bickering. Yet these squabbling factions have little idea of what's unfolding on the ground. The SNC is detached from the Free Syrian Army, which claims to be in charge of the military side. In reality, even the FSA is nothing more than a label of convenience for local fighters. How will they be bound to any settlement?

The third problem is that attitudes in Syria are hardening. The regime is dominated by the Alawite sect of Islam to which the Assad family, its cronies and key military commanders belong – but which comprises scarcely over a tenth of Syria's population. The spectre of a Sunni-dominated government, especially one that includes the most extreme strands of the opposition, is frightening to many Syrian minorities. Then there's the regional context. Syria's violence has spread to Lebanon and Turkey, and the old cross-border networks once used by al-Qa'ida in Iraq to pump fighters and weaponry from Syria into Iraq are being reactivated in reverse.

Could the answer lie in a regional solution? The Sunni powers of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia above all, know that toppling Assad will remove Shia Iran's only remaining friend in the Middle East. But for all their posturing, there's little evidence that many weapons have reached the rebels. Turkey has hinted of intervention, but it's unlikely to step up without allies in tow. The US and Europe are rightly leery of stepping into the swamp. This month being the 20th anniversary of the start of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they rightly recall that the half-measure of "safe zones" are rarely that safe. But a full-scale invasion would be catastrophic.

Under the surface, the Assad regime is rotting. An orderly default, as the Annan plan envisions, would be nice. But this ceasefire is a mirage. When it breaks, the disintegration of Syria will resume.

The writer is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own