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Syria Analyst: Annan’s Peace Plan Treats Symptoms, Not Disease

March 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad toured the besieged city of Homs Tuesday, as reports suggested the government had accepted Kofi Annan's peace plan. Judy Woodruff discusses the latest developments with journalist Andrew Tabler, author of "In the Lion's Den," who lived in Syria for most of the last decade.
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GWEN IFILL:  Judy Woodruff takes the story from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to unpack all this, I’m joined by Andrew Tabler, who lived in Syria for most of the last decade and covered Assad for an English-language magazine he founded there. He has just returned from the region, where met with Free Syrian Army fighters, as well as the political opposition and Syrian refugees.

Andrew Tabler, it’s good to have you back with us.

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Thanks very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First of all, what do you make of this announcement from the office of Kofi Annan that the Syrian government is agreeing to his peace proposal?

ANDREW TABLER: I think it’s very important to note here that President Assad has agreed to many plans over the course of the last year concerning the uprising, and implemented none of them. So you can even see in Annan’s statement there now an a necessity for action to follow up words.

And we will see here in the coming days whether President Assad is interested in implementing this agreement or not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, do you see — it’s a six-point plan. Are there elements in it that you see stand a chance of surviving?

ANDREW TABLER: I think that what it does is, the Assad regime gets something out of this. They get a commitment to a political dialogue without an end goal. It says nothing there about the Assad regime stepping aside. So that might entice the regime into doing something.

But then comes the hard part. The regime then commits itself to withdrawing all military forces from populated areas. Immediately after that, protesters will fill those spaces. And it’s there where the dilemmas will start to appear before Bashar al-Assad and his choices will become clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying, even the government were to go along, the protesters, the opposition is not prepared to go along?

ANDREW TABLER: Apparently, thus far, the opposition has tentatively said that they don’t reject the agreement. The opposition is divided inside of the country.

But I was more referring to what the Assad regime’s choices are going to be concerning how they’re going to deal with the fact that all of these protesters are going to come out in the streets. There’s nothing in the agreement that says that protesters can’t come out and express themselves. In fact, one of the points actually says that protesters must be able to do this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — so at this point, your expectation is what, that it’s unlikely that the Assad government will do anything concrete about this?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, President Assad — well, yes, I think that it’s a good opportunity to test President Assad.

President Assad is in a bind. He’s been going militarily into areas for over a year using the security seclusion. He can partially clear those areas, but he can’t really hold them. And then the opposition comes back out. So perhaps President Assad sees this as an opportunity, with Russian and Chinese support, to try and get out of this politically, but his choices are far from clear at the moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How significant is that Russian and Chinese support? Up until now, they have not been willing to go along with calls to him and to his government to stop what they have been doing.

ANDREW TABLER: Right.

The Russians have significant interests inside of Syria. And we shouldn’t be surprised that they would like to protect them. But I think it’s more a Russian calculation, rightly so, that the Alawite generals in the military, with whom they have relationships, are not about to eject the Assad family from Syria or to get him to step inside any time soon.

So we’re very early in that kind of process, which would eventually lead to an outcome that the Obama administration would like to see, and that’s President Assad leaving the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So we just saw that video of Assad going to Homs today to the Baba Amr neighborhood, where there had been shelling, a lot of people killed. A lot of people have left, have fled.

What does that say to you?

ANDREW TABLER: He promised to rebuild Baba Amr to better than it was before. It takes a lot of gall for a man who spent most of his time over the last year and the last few months destroying a complete area of the city to come back and promise it again.

And also the people in that area who greeted him in the video clip most likely were trucked in or brought in by the Assad regime. Most of the residents of that area, they are Sunnis, and the regime is primarily dominated by Alawites. There’s a tremendous amount of sectarian tension in that area. So I think those that were greeting President Assad were not genuine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, all we heard were the friendly — friendly greetings. There. . .

ANDREW TABLER: Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the divisions among the opposition? There’s been a lot of reporting about that. Do we make of — what are we to make of that at this point?

ANDREW TABLER: Yes.

Until very recently, most of the talk of the divisions in the opposition have concerned the Syrian National Council, which is the umbrella organization abroad of exile groups, which includes some groups on the ground. They have not really had — nothing has really created a necessity for them to come together. There’s been a lot of arguing over chairs and positions and so on in the organization.

That comes in sharp contrast to groups on the ground, which, it’s true, are divided, but actually in many areas of the country have had to work better in the face of the Assad regime’s onslaught, and that’s particularly in the area of Homs. So there’s a real effort ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting which comes up on April 1 to try and get the opposition together, so we have a lot lesser addresses for the Syrian opposition, and then we can perhaps begin to deal with them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — and again, OK, that’s a meeting coming up on Monday in Turkey. You’re actually planning to attend that.

ANDREW TABLER: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do we look for something concrete to come out of that?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, the Annan process deals in many way with the symptoms of the disease, but the disease itself is the Assad regime’s rule and its battle with this incredibly young population the has refused to leave the streets.

The Friends of Syria meeting will help line up a coalition of countries and their ability to deal with the Syrian opposition and to get to the Assad regime to step aside some time in the near future. And that’s really why I think next — the Friends of Syria meeting is going to important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, again, this is a group of Arab countries, Western countries. Secretary Clinton is representing the United States.

ANDREW TABLER: Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is happening on the same day Kofi Annan goes to the U.N. to report on the plan.

ANDREW TABLER: Right. It’s going to be a very busy day and it’s going to be very interesting to see what President Assad’s choices are, because if he decides not go down this route, the U.N. route, and to actually implement what he says he’s agreed to, then there’s going to be this other track now constantly the Friends of Syria group.

And they’re going to be organizing for one thing, and that’s for President Assad to step aside and to build a new Syria. And that involves all those countries you mentioned working together hand in hand with the opposition, not just abroad and in exile, but also those within Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Andrew Tabler, we thank you for joining us once again on the Syria story. Thank you.

ANDREW TABLER: Thank you.