PARIS, France – It’s not often that an international conference produces a pleasant surprise. But the 103 nations that attended a conference of Friends of the Syrian People in Paris yesterday did so.
The difference started with French President Francois Hollande’s inaugural address — where he described the crisis in Syria as “a threat to international security and peace.”
In diplomatic parlance, that’s a coded demand for the issue to be considered under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter — which allows for military intervention.
Hollande, in short, means to stop the Friends of the Syrian People from continuing to dance around the issue, as they did at previous gatherings in Tunis and Istanbul.
To be sure, that doesn’t mean that the nations represented in Paris are ready to act in Syria as many did in Libya. But the acknowledgment of military intervention as an option is in itself important.
The conference also ended ambiguity over the role that the despot Bashar al-Assad might take in any transition to a new Syrian regime.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s “road map” would give Assad a veto on who is included in a transition government. But the Paris conference showed a growing consensus that Assad must be scripted out of any negotiated settlement. Even if he’s to be temporarily replaced by one of his deputies, Assad would have to step aside before a deal is sealed.
Russia and China, two of Assad’s last remaining supporters, declined their invitations to Paris. The third, Iran, wasn’t even invited. All three appear to be having doubts about the wisdom of supporting an unpopular leader who may also be doomed.
Russian and Chinese spokesmen now claim that neither Moscow nor Beijing is “committed to Assad as such.” As for Tehran, the mullahs seem to be preparing to ditch Assad before they host a summit of the nonaligned nations this fall.
Many nonaligned leaders, including new Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, have indicated they’ll boycott the summit if Iran doesn’t alter its pro-Assad stance. If Tehran continues to back Assad, it could end up with high-level representation from only two Arab states, Sudan and Lebanon, at its summit.
Russia now seems a classic opportunist; it’s looking for ways to prevent the United States and its allies from scoring a point by helping remove Assad from power. But Moscow also knows that courting Assad risks antagonizing a majority of the 22 Arab states.
So the Kremlin is desperately looking for a way to portray itself on the side of change in Syria without actually producing the kind of change that Western powers wish for.
Much work remains. But don’t be surprised if Russia takes the lead in selling the idea of a “dignified departure” to Assad. In Yemen, a similar deal was sold to President Ali Abdullah Salih by his principal protector, Saudi Arabia.
What is needed urgently is an end to the bloodshed. And that can’t be achieved while Assad has a central role.
Meanwhile, the first high-level defection from Assad’s inner circle has increased the possibility of “change within the regime.” Brig.-Gen. Manaf Tlas, 43, is a former commander in the Presidential Guard and one of Assad’s closest personal friends. His father, Gen. Mustafa Tlas, was a founder of the Ba’athist regime and served as chief of staff and then defense minister for more than two decades under Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad.
The younger Tlas flew to Paris yesterday; he claims he decided to break with the regime after Assad’s younger brother, Maher, also a brigadier-general, ordered a massacre in the central Syrian town of Rastan — the seat of the Tlas, a leading Sunni clan.
Tlas’ defection ends the myth of solidarity among the despot’s “inner circle. In Damascus, people are already wondering who will be next.
Source: New York Post