Annan's Peace Plan Turns Focus To Syria's Supporters

Robert Siegel speaks with David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post. He says he believes Kofi Annan's plan to involve Russia and Iran in stopping the violence in Syria might work.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote earlier this week about Kofi Annan's new approach and he joins us now from Beirut, Lebanon. Welcome to the program once again.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, David, how different is this initiative from Annan's diplomatic mission so far?

IGNATIUS: Well, it's a wider group. Annan is proposing a contact group that would include all of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia and China, who've been balking at his diplomacy so far. But interestingly, he would also include in this contact group Saudi Arabia, perhaps Qatar, Turkey, and most interestingly of all, Iran.

And his theory is that to break this logjam, he's got to bring in the countries that have been Assad's key supporters.

SIEGEL: You wrote in your column on Tuesday that Bashar al-Assad has transferred money to Russia and that the Russians are reportedly willing to provide him asylum. Do you think that's a likely resolution of his situation?

IGNATIUS: Well, I think he's going to need asylum somewhere. The bloodletting that's going to follow his departure from power as president is going to be a problem for everyone, but especially for the Assad clan and especially the president. I'm told that Russia has already offered him exile, as has Iran. And as I wrote in my column, I've heard, I think, reliable reports that Assad had already transferred about $6 billion in Syrian reserves to Russia to prevent those reserves from being attached by the international community as it adds new economic sanctions against Syria.

SIEGEL: Assad's exile in Russia, I guess, would fit the definition of a Yemen-style transition, which Russians have talked about. Presumably, Russia, if they did accept the end of Bashar al-Assad's presidency, would still want to see a Syria that remains friendly to them. Can you imagine a Syria that does remain friendly to Iran and Russia and that the opposition groups could tolerate?

IGNATIUS: Well, I think that's the price that Russian President Vladimir Putin essentially is demanding here - some guarantee that Russia will have continued influence in its only significant ally in the Middle East. So I think what Annan has seen is that plan B to the failure of his peace initiative is an outright, all-out civil war that could be as bloody as what we saw in Iraq.

So Annan has thought it may make sense to meet the price that Putin is, in effect, asking by bringing them into this process. And I think everybody also wants to try to protect the stability of the Syrian governing structure. In other words, to get Assad and his family, this ruling clique at the top, out, but not create the kind of vacuum that we saw in Iraq. So that's another reason why this plan, I think, is getting some support.

SIEGEL: David, from what you've heard from Syrians, do they perceive a practical difference between what you've called the Assad clique and the situation of the Alawite minority in Syria more broadly? That is, would the end of the Assads mean ultimately a reworking of the whole balance of sects and ethnicities in Syria?

IGNATIUS: Well, there is deepening sectarian bitterness in Syria. The people who were doing the killing in these massacres that we've seen over the last several weeks, in Houla and then yesterday in Qubeir, appear to be informal militias that are drawn largely from the Alawites, as are the commanders of the army units that have been doing most of the fighting.

So there's a lot of bitterness. But I think everybody, every responsible person who's part of the Syrian opposition, understands that job one for them in building a real political transition is to reach out to Syria's minorities and say, even though Sunnis are the large majority in Syria, this is your country, too, and we understand that and we understand your fear.

And I think there probably have to be guarantees by this contact group of the world's leading powers saying, we stand ready to prevent any massacre of Alawites, of Christians, of people who are associated with the regime. It's not going to work perfectly 'cause there clearly is going to score settling - no matter what anybody says or tries to do.

But the idea - and I've heard a lot of talk among White House officials about this, as well - is how do we keep that bloodletting at a minimum once Assad is gone.

SIEGEL: David Ignatius, thank you very much for talking with us today.

IGNATIUS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who wrote earlier in the week about Kofi Annan's new plan for a diplomatic mission on Syria.

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