IT’S a good plan in theory: an end to foreign interference, a “national dialogue” to prepare a charter, a referendum for popular ratification and then a parliamentary election. Speaking to a packed crowd at a cultural centre in Damascus on Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad denounced his opponents in strong terms, calling them “Western puppets” and “enemies of God” and said his forces would call off fighting if foreign powers stopped arming the dissidents. Appearing in public for the first time in six months, the president surprised the world by his confidence and, after the speech, was mobbed in scenes that observers called well-choreographed. But the end-result was a road map that has little chance of success. The Syrian National Coalition, which comprises different opposition groups, rejected the plan and called for his ouster. Pro-dissident powers denounced the plan, Turkey saying there was nothing new in it, while the US and the European Union called upon the president to quit. Iran alone welcomed the Assad speech, saying it could stop violence and lead to a negotiated settlement.

A peaceful solution is what Syria’s well-wishers want. But so much blood has been spilled over the last 21 months and the rival sides have adopted such hard-line positions it is difficult to see how they can negotiate across the table. Already, the character of the conflict has deviated from the ideals of the Arab Spring, for the entry of extremist elements, especially those loyal to Al Qaeda, has given it a sectarian hue. Yet that shouldn’t serve to hide the Baathist regime’s regional and international isolation. Frankly, there are no powers or elements, internal or external, which can truly be called impartial and genuinely interested in a peaceful solution. With neither side in a position to win militarily, the slaughter in Syria is likely to continue.

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