Al-Sharaa, the alternative?
The Turkish foreign minister has proposed that Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa lead a transitional government to end the war, a proposal rejected by the regime and given only lukewarm support by the opposition. Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus
While Turkish artillery were bombing Syrian army locations on the border between the two countries in response to Syrian rockets that had landed in Turkey and killed civilians, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week put forward a year-old Arab proposal that Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa should head a transitional government "to end the civil war".
Davutoglu praised Al-Sharaa as "a man of wisdom and conscience who has not participated in massacres," asserting that "no one else knows the Syrian regime as well." He said that the Syrian opposition would be ready to accept Al-Sharaa as the leader of a transitional Syrian government.
The sole response from Syria came from the minister of information at a seminar in Damascus, who described the proposal as "a reflection of political and diplomatic disarray and confusion".
The minister said that Turkey is "no longer the Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry does not have the right to appoint walis [governors] in Damascus, Mecca, Cairo and Jerusalem." He suggested that the Turkish government should itself "step down to be replaced by figures acceptable to the Turkish masses".
However, Borhan Ghalyoun, former chair of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), declared that the Syrian opposition would accept al-Sharaa as the leader of a transitional government if this ended the fighting in the country.
Ghalyoun made this acceptance conditional by saying that Al-Sharaa should take power after Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad stepped down, and he doubted that Al-Sharaa would accept the position.
"Today, there is no one left with Bashar except a gang of criminals, and I don't believe Al-Sharaa is one of them," Ghalyoun said. "But he is weak and he cannot carry out such a proposal."
"The state apparatus in Syria is vast, and Syrian civil servants, military forces and administrators must be included in mapping out the future of the country. That is the logic behind al-Sharaa leading the transitional phase. Accepting him would not be a form of surrender -- the Vietnamese continued fighting during the peace negotiations" to end the Vietnam War.
Haitham Al-Mallah, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Syrian Revolution, an opposition group, said he was surprised by the Turkish proposal and described it as "very short-sighted". The opposition was seeking to "uproot the regime and not just one person", he added, saying that he could not trust "anyone who has cooperated with Al-Assad".
In practical terms, the Turkish proposal is an attempt to revive the former Arab initiative to end the conflict. Last January, after Arab observers withdrew from Syria, the Arab League proposed that Al-Assad relinquish his powers to his deputy in a move that would be similar to what happened in Yemen.
The UN Security Council and some Syrian opposition figures supported the idea, but the Syrian leadership flatly rejected it.
When the Arab League recommended that Al-Sharaa head the transitional regime, it seemed that this was an attempted coup from within whereby Al-Assad would remain as a figurehead president but his deputy would take over his powers.
The transitional government, with the participation of the opposition, would then begin building the foundations of a new pluralist democratic regime in Syria that would achieve the desires of the Syrian people. This would pave the way to a gradual and peaceful transition of power.
However, the Arab initiative also ended Al-Sharaa's political career in the view of the centres of power of the Syrian regime, which began to view him as Al-Assad's rival.
The regime refused to discuss the Arab proposal and accused the Arab League of "interference in Syria's internal affairs". It has now also refused to respond to the Turkish suggestion, because it believes that it has the upper hand in the crisis sweeping Syria and that it will ultimately achieve victory.
The regime insists that there is "a universal conspiracy" against it that will soon be foiled.
"The proposal by Turkey's foreign minister is not useful," Marwan Habash, a former Syrian minister and a member of the regional leadership of the ruling Baath Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"I believe Davutoglu does not understand the composition of Syria's power centres and what its leaders would do if the Syrian president accepted to relinquish his powers. What was applied in Yemen cannot be applied in Syria because of the nature of the conflicts in Yemen, the composition of the powers, and the presence of qualified political leaders. All these things enabled the Yemeni vice president to take over the powers of the president, but none of these things exist in Syria."
"The fighting has the upper hand now, and the political opposition has left the spotlight, leaving those bearing arms to have the final word on any initiative. Meanwhile, the regime has continued its security clampdown and has eliminated any possibility of a political solution."
The Turkish proposal has thus fared little better than other initiatives to end the Syrian crisis. Damascus is counting on the fact that any decisions will lack binding implementation mechanisms, and it knows that international intervention is not an option for the time being.
Monzer Khaddam, a spokesman for the National Coordination Committee (NCC) that includes the opposition inside the country, told the Weekly that the most important factor for the opposition is not who will lead the transitional phase but its substance.
Khaddam said that the regime would not accept any leader other than Al-Assad unless the balance of power changes on the ground. "We are not really thinking about who will be in charge during the interim period," he told the Weekly.
"What is important is that period's substance and whether it will meet the demands of the people. We would prefer that if the president remains in power the government should be led by a well-known opposition figure with a full mandate. The important thing is the transitional phase itself and how effective it is," he said.
In March last year, one week after the uprising began in Deraa in the south of Syria where Al-Sharaa himself comes from, the vice president declared that the regime would not use weapons against protesters in Deraa or anywhere else.
However, despite this pledge the security forces attacked strikers and shot them with live ammunition, killing dozens of people in the governorate. Since then, Al-Sharaa has avoided making statements.
In June last year, four months after the uprising began, Al-Assad formed a committee for national dialogue headed by Al-Sharaa who attempted through contacts with the opposition to convince it to participate in a conference bringing together the opposition and the regime.
However, all the opposition refused to attend, demanding that the army and security forces withdraw from the cities, political prisoners be released and peaceful protests be authorised. The regime rejected these preconditions, with the result that all those present at the conference shared the views of the regime.
Although the opposition boycotted this conference, al-Sharaa broke from the script and said at the end of the gathering that one-party rule was no longer viable in Syria and that it was necessary to introduce the rotation of power.
The country's official press attacked him as a result, saying that he had attempted to use the conference to market himself politically instead of defending the regime.
In the months that followed, Al-Sharaa tried to maintain connections with the opposition and intervene with the leadership to accept some of its views, though it seems that the regime began to view Al-Sharaa's role as more harmful than beneficial.
It dissolved the dialogue committee, and al-Sharaa's role as mediator between the opposition and the regime came to an abrupt halt. He was then marginalised in political and military decision-making, and he began to avoid media appearances.
In August, there were rumours that Al-Sharaa had defected and fled Syria, but his office denied these and he made an appearance a few days later at the funeral of Assef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law, who was killed when the regime's security headquarters was bombed in Damascus.
Also in August, Al-Sharaa issued a statement to the effect that he was still a part of the regime inner circle and welcomed the mission of UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in the country.
Al-Sharaa then proposed creating a transitional governing body composed of incumbent members of the Syrian government and opposition figures to manage the country in parallel with al-Assad for one year. This body would prepare for free parliamentary and presidential elections in 2013.
Commenting on Al-Sharaa's influence within the regime, opposition figure Ayman Abdel-Nour, chief editor of All4Syria, told the Weekly that "there is no meaning to any official post in Syria. A lieutenant in the security forces who is close to Al-Assad is more important than the prime minister. Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa has no real authority. He receives his orders from the presidential palace, and sometimes he does not even know the reasons and draws his own conclusions or relies on media reports."
"Everyone is an employee, not a partner. The security agencies control all the strategic decisions, and they send proposals to the president to choose from."
The US imposed sanctions against Al-Sharaa in May last year "for his role in suppressing the protest movement" in Syria.
He began his career with Syrian Airlines, before being appointed Syrian ambassador to Rome in 1976. He became state minister for foreign affairs in 1980, and then foreign minister in 1984. In 2006, Al-Assad appointed him vice president to replace Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who had defected from the regime.
Some opposition figures believe that at 74 Al-Sharaa is too old and too cautious to become even interim president. Others believe he is the only compromise choice available and would therefore be acceptable.
Observers believe that the opposition alone will not be able to lead the country in the future, especially since it is not united and has been bickering over power. It might therefore be as well if the interim phase relied on regime figures who could work with the opposition, so long as they were not implicated in the killings.
As a result, Al-Sharaa could become a key figure in the transitional phase.