Ousting Syria’s Assad through a ‘soft landing’

Syrian President Bashar Assad visiting Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs, March 27, 2012

From David Ignatius, the Washington Post:  Maybe it’s time for Syrian revolutionaries to take “yes” for an answer from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and back a U.N.-sponsored “managed transition” of power there, rather than rolling on toward a civil war that will bring more death and destruction for the region.

The Assad government announced Tuesday that it was ready to accept a peace plan proposed by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan. The Syrian announcement in Beijing followed endorsement of the plan by China and Russia. The proposal has many weaknesses, but it could open the way toward a “soft landing” in Syria that would remove Assad without shattering the stability of the country. . . .

I credit the Obama administration for resisting the growing chorus of calls to arm the Syrian rebels — and for continuing to seek Moscow’s help even after the Russians’ foot-dragging that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (imprudently but accurately) described last month as “despicable.”

It’s a moment for realpolitik: The West needs Russia’s help in removing Assad without a civil war, and Russia needs to broker a transition to bolster its future influence in the Arab world. That’s the pragmatic logic that’s driving Annan’s peace effort.

Political change (even the cautious, managed-transition version I’m urging) won’t come to Syria without some bloodshed. Over the past year, it has been one-sided, with perhaps 10,000 opposition fighters and civilians slaughtered by Assad’s forces, and there’s bound to be some settling of scores. Friends of Syria should start thinking about ways to prevent reprisals against the Alawite and Christian communities that have been loyal to the regime, once Assad is on a plane for Doha or Moscow. I hope Annan will reach out to religious leaders of these minority communities to offer them reassurance they won’t be massacred if Assad goes.

The alternative to a diplomatic soft landing is a war that shatters the ethnic mosaic in Syria. It’s easy to imagine Sunni militias gaining control of central cities such as Homs, Hama and Idlib, while Alawites retreat to parts of Damascus and Latakia province in the north. Assad might still claim to be president in this scenario, but he would be little more than a warlord (albeit one with access to chemical weapons). It’s a grim scenario in which Western air power would have limited effect.  (photo: AP)

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