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The only glimmer of hope for Syria

By George A. Lopez, Special to CNN
June 8, 2012 -- Updated 1559 GMT (2359 HKT)
Kofi Annan addresses the U.N. General Assembly on the situation in the Syria on June 7 in New York.
Kofi Annan addresses the U.N. General Assembly on the situation in the Syria on June 7 in New York.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • George Lopez: Kofi Annan report to U.N. on Syria violence was sobering
  • Lopez says there is hope for movement by big powers on a way to attain a cease-fire
  • He says a regional conference that included all key players could lead to progress
  • Lopez: History shows that peace is often initiated by those with blood on their hands

Editor's note: George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He served on the U.N. panel of experts for Security Council sanctions on North Korea from October 2010 through July 2011.

(CNN) -- In a report Thursday to the U.N. General Assembly, former secretary-general and Syrian peace envoy Kofi Annan was frank and determined: Neither the opposition nor the Syrian government are implementing the cease-fire.

Annan was particularly condemning of the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in the increased number and barbarity of attacks against the Syrian people, using the term "massacre" multiple times. He stated, "Clearly, all parties must cease violence. But equally clearly, the first responsibility lies with the government."

Photos: In Syria, families flee and rebels fight

Before briefing the Security Council, where disagreements among the five permanent members (known as the P5) have stifled the imposition of sanctions against the al-Assad regime, Annan asserted, "We must find the will and the common ground to act — and act as one."

George Lopez
George Lopez

Unconfirmed reports are that Annan asked the council in closed session to give his plan an injection of unity and action by creating an international group to advance ideas and discussions for peaceful dialogue and political transition.

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As bleak as the Annan report and Syrian situation are, big power-driven happenings of this past week outside the Security Council may mesh well with Annan's request and provide a window of opportunity for progress even in the face of growing violence and disagreements among major nations.

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In Washington, nearly 60 countries attended the U.S. Treasury Department-hosted meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People,'" co-chaired by Qatar, Turkey and the United States. That group issued a strong statement reaffirming its support for the Annan plan, condemning the brutal repression by the regime and reissuing its call for Security Council sanctions on the al-Assad regime.

China condemns Syria violence

Not to be outdone, the Russians and the Chinese, meeting in Beijing, issued a proposal for a regional peace conference that would include all the major players in Syria's neighborhood, most especially Iran and Turkey. In the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the conference was an opportunity "for all external players to agree, honestly and without double standards, to fulfill Kofi Annan's plan."

While the competition of these priorities and plans for solving the Syrian crisis harks back to the Cold War, ironically these P5 antagonists may have provided the outline of a framework and some structural stability that the Annan plan has been lacking to date.

In Syria, a massacre feels eerily familiar

In these new proclamations, Russia and the United States may be stumbling to a way forward, especially when each power recognizes that they are only small concessions away from agreement, and that history supports the Annan view.

While regional peace conferences are always risky enterprises, it's difficult to imagine bringing a cease-fire to the Syrian situation without all parties that border that state or who have armed and financed any faction in the dispute being at the conference table. If the conference produces an agreement, the parties will need to monitor and constrain arms flows and the influx of foreign fighters. On this, the Russians will need to compromise and cooperate.

The initial reaction of the United States, as reflected in statements from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was not enthusiastic about an inclusive peace conference. Clinton noted that Iran, in particular, did not deserve a place at the table because it was such a singular supporter of the al-Assad killing regime.

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However, experience indicates that unless all the key killers and their enablers sit around the same table, it will be very difficult to forge a sustainable peace agreement.

The harsh reality of the Syrian situation, as with the former Yugoslavia and other bloody civil wars before it, indicates that peace is made at the outset by murderers and scoundrels. But if reinforced by larger powers like those that would be at the table, an intersection of interests of Syrian parties and neighbors might produce a workable deal, however bloody the hands of the signers would be. On this, the United States will need to compromise and cooperate.

Surely, serious obstacles remain to having the Annan plan take hold on the ground. The opposition has now demonstrated sufficient firepower that if Syrian tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops withdraw back to the barracks, various cities and villages will come under full opposition control. Al-Assad fears this and will not yield to it easily, if at all.

That the Syrian people continue to pour out into the streets each Friday afternoon in the face of guaranteed government attacks shows the mobilization of large numbers may not be easily curtailed when a period of calm is declared. This will require leadership not yet seen from the opposition.

Also, the place of the al-Assad government within any peace conference, much less in the future of the country, is an obstacle that separates the large powers considerably. Yet none of these problems prohibit more consensus now by the P5 on some new and basic steps to end the violence.

An astute use of this week's events and Annan's call to unified action could lead to a Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire and peace conference within 30 days. This would provide a new platform upon which the Annan plan can stand and move forward. It certainly warrants the creative attention of the big powers, the states in the region and the combatants on the ground in Syria.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of George Lopez.

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