by Ray Fleming

The news that President Assad of Syria has accepted a peace plan formulated by Kofi Annan, the United Nations negotiator, is one step forward but no more, as Annan himself said yesterday. The plan includes standard provisions for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centres, a daily two-hour period for humanitarian assistance and the release of prisoners. Similar provisions in earlier Arab League peace proposals were apparently accepted by President Assad but never implemented. The main difference now is that Mr Annan has secured the unqualified support of China and Russia, and also has the existing Western and Arab League support, so Assad faces unanimous international pressure. He is, however, a master of delay over detail and will probably do all he can to slow down implementation.

The key to the limited but important progress made by Mr Annan has been the dropping of any demand or suggestion that the Syrian president should step down. This has made possible support from China and Russia who both oppose any UN role in enforcing “regime change”. Yesterday Annan stressed that his task is “to help all the Syrian parties to come to the table” for negotiations on the country's future governance. This will require Assad and the rebels who have opposed him for a year to face each other. A long, slow process is in prospect.

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