The Shortcomings of Annan’s “Plan B” in Syria

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Will Kofi Annan’s latest proposal for a political transition end the conflict in Syria? The short answer is no, not in its current form.

Syria is now, in the words of Bashar al-Assad, in a “state of war” as fighting intensifies between government forces and opposition fighters. While the diplomats have talked and talked, Syria has entered the point of no return.

The effects are plain for all to see: a regime increasingly unrestrained in waging war on its own people; a militarized opposition that is more effective and less controllable; and a region, as the downing of the Turkish military plane illustrated, that is more unpredictable and combustible.

It is under these conditions that Annan jettisoned Plan A, which sought to end the violence by placing unarmed U.N. observers in a war zone under the dual authority of the Syrian government and the U.N. Security Council. He now seeks to unite key international players such as Russia, the United States, China and the European Union by proposing Plan B: a Syrian national unity Cabinet that would include government and opposition members and exclude those who would undermine it. (Which is the closest Annan can get, without really saying it, that al-Assad would be excluded in the future government.)

But there is little hope among Syria’s opposition that this will work.

Leaders in the Free Syrian Army have dismissed Annan’s efforts outright as a colossal waste of time, while key figures in the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups remain highly skeptical. They are asking basic unanswered questions: What regime figures would be included in the proposed unity government? What guarantees are there that al-Assad and his family would be excluded? In conversations with those opposition figures, not one person has indicated they would be willing to join such a government. Many, however, have indicated their willingness to join such a government after al-Assad and those orchestrating the killings have been deposed.

Another unanswered question remains the position of Russia and whether it has finally turned against al-Assad. Some believe it might be doing so, especially by showing initial support for Annan’s unity government. But in recent U.S.-Russia meetings, the gap between the two countries has remained wide as Vladimir Putin flatly refuses to discuss a post-Assad scenario as a starting point for a political transition.

Russia still believes a political solution can only be achieved through a Syrian-led dialogue between the regime and the opposition. By contrast, the U.S. has given its support to Annan’s idea as long as, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “it starts from the basic premise that Assad and his regime must give way to a new democratic Syria.”

There has been much speculation on Russia’s motivation for standing by the al-Assad regime, but the simple fact is that it is not budging — at least not yet.

With the first direct route apparently closed, there is perhaps a second that could tip the balance or at least get Moscow to engage on a post-Assad political transition in Syria.

A much less discussed aspect of the diplomatic impasse has been the ongoing difficulty of forging a credible Syrian opposition platform that binds Syria’s diverse communities and different opposition movements.

The major opposition blocs will be attending an Arab League-sponsored conference in Cairo on Monday and Tuesday to discuss a transition plan for what they consider to be al-Assad’s inevitable ouster. While there are low expectations of the meeting and the fractured Syrian opposition itself, the goal — attempting to unite — should be strongly encouraged.

In many ways, such a platform has been developing despite the continuing dysfunction and shortcomings of the Syrian National Council, which is seen as the leading opposition bloc. The Council has recently been joined by other opposition figures and groups, such as a fledgling National Bloc, in the effort against al-Assad. And the realization that the Council cannot hold sway over all of Syria’s opposition groups — and is unlikely to influence external actors such as Russia — has led to new efforts in Istanbul, Sofia and Cairo to forge a common national platform united around a common national vision.

The last few months have seen how representatives from Syria’s tribes; some of its minorities, including the leaderships of the Kurds and the Druze; the business elite; and recently exiled religious figures have sought to forge such a common national vision for a future of Syria without al-Assad. These groups have aimed to engage with the Syrian National Council and other established opposition groupings, but not to join them. All remain deeply suspicious of the control that Turkey and the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood have exerted on the opposition movement through the Council, which is based in Turkey. Instead, this diverse group has seen itself as a bridge to uniting Syrians against the al-Assad regime and articulating a vision of a modern, democratic and independent Syrian state after the regime has gone.

The international community and international mediators would do well to remember that it is these efforts to forge national unity that can best lead to a political solution in Syria. Aiming to forge a unity government with a regime that continues to bludgeon its people into submission and will not negotiate in good faith is the wrong approach.

With the situation on the ground spiraling out of control, there is no more time to waste. Faced with a genuine opposition platform and its vision for an independent, democratic Syria, Russia might also be forced to think again. Let us hope so. Only then could a successful Plan B and a political solution take hold.