In spite of his optimistic statements, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not accomplish much during his weekend meetings in Syria. It’s a little hard to negotiate with someone who refuses to admit who it is that he is fighting. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insists that the people who are fighting his regime are “outside terrorist groups” and not Syrians who are responding to the attacks that al-Assad’s security forces launched against the unarmed, peaceful protesters who gathered in the streets last winter.
Speaking with the press as he was leaving Damascus for Qatar, Mr. Annan said that he had presented “concrete proposals” to the President to end the bloodshed, but admitted that a deal was far from achieved. Al-Assad refuses to any discussion of political change in Syria as long as “armed terrorist groups” are in his country, while the opposition does not believe anything will happen to change the situation there, particularly as the security forces are besieging the city of Idlib while Mr. Annan was meeting with al-Assad.
When the protests began a year ago, the goal of the protesters was to get changes to the Constitution that would allow multiple political parties, free elections and better representation of all the citizens of Syria. The current system, which has been in place for over 40 years, allows only the Baath Party of the Alawite minority to hold the real power in the government and military. The Alawis are 11% of the population of Syria, and part of the Shia minority. The majority, 74% of the poulation of Syria, is Sunni Muslim. For all intents and purposes, Bashar al-Assad was not elected President. He wasn’t supposed to be President. His older brother Bassel was supposed to succeed their father Hafez, but died in an auto accident. Bashar was called back from England where he had studied to be an ophthalmologist. The parliament had to amend the constitution to allow the 35-year-old Bashar to succeed his father in 2000, since the age for the Presidency was 40. Also fueling the protests was a severe drought in the south and a lack of response from the government to anything happening outside of Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. Unemployment among young, educated Syrians was too high and the economy was not improving for those outside the three cities.
While Bashar made a couple of speeches about making reforms, his security forces started shooting protesters, arresting “dissidents” as young as 11 and torturing them to death. It took months, but finally last May a group of soldiers rebelled against the security forces, refused to open fire on unarmed civilians and the armed resistence started. It is not known exactly how many soldiers have defected, but it is believed they number in the hundreds and more, including a couple of generals last week, are joining all the time. These are the “armed terrorist gangs” that Bashar al-Assad says he is protecting his people from.
The facts have been kept from many in Syria, but the internet and social media have brought the truth mostly to the young. A referendum was held last week for amendments to the constitution, and al-Assad has claimed total victory for the referendum. The international community and the opposition do not believe that any of the reforms will ever be carried out.
Against this backdrop, the Arab League has tried to quell the violence by sending in monitors. They withdrew the monitors because the situation on the ground was too dangerous for them. The International Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent have tried to bring aid to the displaced, injured and ill in the devastated city of Homs, only to be held back until the destroyed portions of the city were empty of people and being bulldozed. Now, they are being kept out of Idlib. Thousands have fled into Turkey and Lebanon, others are refugees within Syria. With Russia and China blocking any United Nations action, Iran supplying the regime with God-knows-what and a situation on the ground that precludes any attempts at militarily protecting the civilian population, Kofi Annan is sort of the last resort. He was the choice of both the Arab League and the United Nations as a negotiator for the civilians, to find a way to protect them and get them the aid they need. Annan may be optimistic, but he is pretty much alone in that assessment. The opposition has tallied over 7,500 civilians and rebel fighters dead, while al-Assad talks endlessly about the alleged 2,000 soldiers and security forces killed. Of course, he may be including the ones that have been executed by the regime for refusing orders to kill unarmed citizens.