Only 'plan' Assad has is to wait out misery of his making

The recent speech by Syria's president provides nothing new for Syrians - not even hope

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Days before Bashar Al Assad's speech last Sunday, pro-Syrian Lebanese media outlets raised expectations of what would be offered. Al Akhbar, a pro-Hizbollah newspaper, said that Mr Al Assad would offer a five-point transition plan that would bring a new government into place, led by Haytham Manna, an opposition figure who favours dialogue with the regime.

Mr Al Assad did no such thing. His aim was different: to dash all hopes that he would be flexible, and in that way show that he was still confident of victory. He offered, instead, a three-point plan conceding very little. His opponents, whom he labelled "terrorists", would begin by laying down their weapons, while their foreign backers must stop aiding them. The government would then initiate a dialogue to prepare a charter, which would be submitted to a national referendum. After this legislative elections would be held.

In a third stage, a broad unity government would be formed. It would organise a national reconciliation conference and issue a general amnesty for those detained during the conflict. No doubt the amnesty will be based on what the security apparatus reports about the detained, the same apparatus that is at the vanguard of repression.

Needless to say, the Syrian opposition saw nothing in the plan to interest them. Even the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has offered more, putting forth a proposal that would see a new government formed with full powers, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. This would, in theory, precipitate Mr Al Assad's departure. The Syrian president's plan, by making no concessions on the presidency, was effectively a rejection of Mr Brahimi's scheme, which today lies in tatters.

And yet what does Mr Al Assad have to offer as a realistic way out of his country's mess? Absolutely nothing. That is why his unwillingness to consider more realistic political options will prolong the butchery. He may find it useful to show confidence at a time of generalised despair, but no one is duped by Mr Al Assad's bravado. When the president's most ardent supporters can see that his plan is unworkable, this must further undermine their confidence.

They know well that Mr Al Assad's forces are not winning against the revolt. It has been months since the regime promised to take back Aleppo, but to no avail. Instead, since then large swathes of the north and north-east have been lost, with rebels now challenging the regime in the suburbs of Damascus. The army is abandoning territory everywhere, so that the president's bravado only promises more suffering, not the beginning of the end of Syria's misery.

It would be a mistake to view his speech as detached from reality. Such a verdict suggests that Mr Al Assad doesn't realise what's going on around him. But deception is par for the course for the current leader of a regime that has mutilated the truth for some 43 years, since his father, Hafez Al Assad, took power in 1970. Bashar Al Assad has very consciously manipulated reality to send a message that he is still in power, and that he will not give it up under present circumstances.

Some may see strength in this defiance, but more likely Mr Al Assad simply refuses to go because he knows the reaction of the three principle pillars of his power: his Alawite community, its political-military elite, and his own family. By negotiating his departure, the Syrian president would, first, have to persuade these three circles, who would almost certainly oppose his exit, as this would pose an existential threat to them as well as to their influence in Syria.

In that case, what did Mr Al Assad hope to gain by making a speech fraught with conscious denial about the reality of his situation? For starters, the president appears to believe that he has not reached a breaking point, and that he still has enough military leverage and foreign backing to hold out for a better deal. By better deal, Mr Al Assad probably understands an arrangement allowing him and the Alawite elite to play a significant role in any transition process.

Indeed, while the opposition has made gains, it continues to face foreign doubts, with arms and ammunition deliveries from abroad having apparently been reduced. The opposition regards this as an effort to perpetuate the war between it and the Syrian regime. This will only make opposition groups more reluctant to turn against allied organisations such as the Al Nusra Front, which the United States has described as a terrorist organisation with ties to Al Qaeda.

The complexity of the Syrian conflict may create more problems for the opposition than for Mr Al Assad. All he has to do is stay in power and resist an onslaught against Damascus. The opposition coalition, in contrast, must prove it can take over Syria's leadership, persuade governments abroad that it is not allied with terrorists, and above all, persuade Syrians and non-Syrians that it has a sensible political plan, one that integrates all those who fear that Mr Al Assad's downfall will bring with it great hardship for Syria's minorities.

Mr Al Assad's speech was a dud, but the president continues to play on the doubts directed against his enemies. For as long as the opposition is not given the means to win a military victory, these doubts will dog them. By complicating the conflict, therefore making it more bloody, Mr Al Assad hopes to find an exit. It may not work, but that's how one should read the president's speech. It pushed Syria deeper into a mire that the regime alone hopes to exploit.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

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