It was a victory parade without the ticker tape. On Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad toured the crushed neighborhood of Bab Amr in Homs in a rare public appearance, surveying damage inflicted by his troops and rebel fighters, and promising that the area would be "better than before." The visit coincided with an announcement from U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan that the Syrian leader had agreed to a six-point peace plan to end the year-long crisis, including a cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons from besieged cities, freedom to demonstrate and political negotiations. That announcement put the ball back in the court of the fractured opposition, as it met in Istanbul in a last-ditch bid to unify ranks ahead of an international Friends of Syria meeting later in the week.
Whether or not Annan's plan achieves a breakthrough remains to be seen. The Syrian leader has previously accepted deals in principle, only to cherry pick the elements he chooses to implement. Significantly, while Syrian state media focused on the president's tour of an area "agonized by heavily armed terrorist groups which terrorized the inhabitants," there was no mention of accepting Annan's plan.
In the short clip broadcast on state TV, Assad and his entourage are seen amid a devastated landscape of bombed-out buildings and broken glass. He chats with utility workers, urging them to work hard and inform citizens of a schedule so that they "can know when life might return to normal."
The problem is that a significant number of Syrians don't want a return to normalcy: they want Assad's ouster. By reportedly agreeing to Annan's plan, the lanky leader has ensured a place for himself at the table in negotiating the country's future a prospect anathema to most factions of the splintered Syrian opposition, although they may not have the domestic leverage or international backing to avoid it.
Basma Kodmani, an executive member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, told Al-Jazeera from Istanbul that the SNC "cautiously welcomes" Assad's reported overture, but quickly added that the body still wanted Assad to step down. "That will never change," she said. "There is no way that any representative or credible opposition group can say otherwise. What we are saying here is that if this can open the way for a peaceful transition of power, this is what we would like to see."
Annan's plan is a watered-down version of an earlier Arab League proposal, the primary distinction being that it does not require Assad to step down. Instead, it shares the onus for ending violence more equally between the regime and the opposition, largely to please Syria's powerful Russian and Chinese allies who have repeatedly staved off meaningful international censure of their ally.
The six-point plan urges Syrians to "commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilize the country." It also calls for freedom of association and the right to demonstrate, a "list of all places" where people are detained and asks the government for access to those locations.
It's hard to see how it would be in Assad's interests to cede ground and withdraw his troops and heavy weaponry from areas only superficially pacified by the whack-a-mole approach that has stretched his forces. Given the opportunity, protesters are likely to surge back out into the streets, as they did during the short-lived Arab League observer mission in January. That means fully implementing the deal would jeopardize his prospects of riding out the uprising.
Assad is helped, however, by the inability of the Syrian opposition to get its act together, leaving its Western and Arab backers struggling to find viable alternatives to the dictator. A two-day meeting in Istanbul of several factions almost spilled into a third, a possibility averted by late-night deliberations. The opposition groups were corralled in Istanbul by Turkey and Qatar, in a bid to forge a united front. The Kurdish National Council walked out early in the day, after demands that the Kurdish "situation" be specifically mentioned in the opposition's final statement, according to participants. Veteran dissident Haithem al-Maleh also withdrew from the meeting, accusing the SNC of "behaving like the Ba'ath party" of Assad," AFP reported.
The final communique was announced by George Sabra, a prominent and well-respected Christian member of the SNC who is widely touted to succeed its current chief, Burhan Ghalioun. Still, rather than specify a strategy for ousting Assad, it contained broad statements about the nature of a post-Assad state, including a civilian republic with the military not involved in politics, and a demand that the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights be returned to Syria.
"There's nothing new that has been introduced," said Rami Jarrah, a young independent activist also known as Alexander Page, who travelled from Cairo to attend the meeting. "The idea of the meeting is that everybody comes together and agrees to these general ideas. It's a first step toward sitting down and talking," he added. "It's more moral than it is about having any actual effect on political society."
Some participants were disappointed that meatier issues were not on the agenda. One expressed his frustration to Al-Jazeera: "Who doesn't agree with a civil democratic state?" he said. "This conference is unnecessary, we don't need a conference like this, with all its expenses, to agree to something like that."
But the problem is, they can't seem to agree even on the basics. Assad, on the other hand, is masterfully playing his hand. Tuesday's tour of Homs and his supposed acceptance of Annan's plan "matches [Assad's] three-leg strategy," said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The messages Assad wants to send are clear, Hokayem said: that his military strategy worked; that he makes reforms on his terms; and that he can accept Annan's plan to please his allies "and give them some room."
He'll certainly have made more room for himself by declaring his acceptance of Annan's plan at least until the opposition is capable of uniting and offering itself as a viable and inclusive alternative to Assad.