Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Assad’s fate

The inability of the international community to agree on the fate of the Syrian president is prolonging the conflict in the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

When the Syrian uprising began some four-and-a-half years ago, its demands were clear: freedom, democracy, and an end to corruption. It was the heavy-handed repression of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that impelled the revolutionaries to embrace another demand: the removal of the incumbent president from power.

During the first year of the revolution, Al-Assad made it clear in one speech after another that he had no intention of leaving office and that he would stamp out the revolution by force.

Little has changed since then, and while various revolutionary factions insist on Al-Assad’s downfall, his international allies want him to stay in office. This has become the thorny issue on which most negotiations now founder and the stumbling block that has frustrated every attempt at international mediation thus far.

In December 2012, Al-Assad told the London Sunday Times newspaper that when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had left office Egypt had lived on, but if he were to leave office in his country little would be left of Syria.

It was an ominous prediction, and he has made sure it has come true.

With help from Moscow and Tehran, Al-Assad has stuck to his guns, bombing opponents, including civilians, razing towns, unleashing the full force of his army, hiring irregulars from among his own clan, and bringing in militias from across the borders to further ignite the conflict.

Mediators came and went, ceasefires were proposed, and humanitarian conditions were addressed. Conferences were arranged in the region and beyond, and some ground rules were established. But one thing that has remained impervious to settlement and immune to compromise has been the fate of Al-Assad.

The regime will not discuss it, the negotiators have failed to emphasise it, and the opposition has not been able to give it up.

In June 2012, the major powers sanctioned a final communique at the Geneva Conference on Syria called the Geneva Declaration. To date, this has been the most far-reaching blueprint for a solution to the conflict in the country, calling among other things for the formation of an interim governing body with full executive powers and practically replacing the existing power structure.

However, even this document has failed to make much impression on the regime and its allies because it does not state in no uncertain terms that Al-Assad will have to leave office.

Since then, there have been various interpretations of the Geneva Declaration, and the regime’s negotiators have managed to fudge the issue of Al-Assad’s future in all the follow-up talks.

Meanwhile, the regime has received solid backing from both Iran and Russia. The Iranians have made it clear that they want Al-Assad to stay in power, and their forces are said to be guarding him for fear that he may be assassinated.

The Russians are a bit less intent, at least in their public statements, on Al-Assad’s staying in office. But they have sent him ample weapons to help ensure his longevity, including MiG planes that arrived in Damascus just a few days ago.

Last month, diplomats from the region and abroad held several meetings to discuss a new solution to the Syrian crisis.

In talks with Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir on 11 August Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov argued that the Geneva Declaration aims to preserve all the Syrian institutions, including the army. Al-Jubeir told him that the army should be preserved, but the president would have to go.

On 13 August, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Lavrov on the telephone to discuss the Syrian issue. But judging by previous exchanges it is unlikely that the views of the two men converged.

Syrian opposition member Said Muqbil believes that even the Americans are in two minds about Al-Assad. “The West, especially the US, is cautious about ending the present crisis for fear that the alternative to it may be even worse,” he said.

“Their approach, which is one of ‘better the devil you know,’ is what has been keeping Al-Assad in power.”

Al-Assad may now only have Damascus and a few other towns under his control, but this is enough for him and his regime to keep the bloodshed going, Muqbil remarked.

 For a while, some opposition members suggested that Al-Assad should be allowed to stay in office, but without executive power, for a few months as a way of breaking the deadlock, but Muqbil is not convinced that this would work.

“Even if the Syrian opposition agrees to leave Al-Assad in office while the country is being run by an interim body according to the Geneva Declaration, he will not let the governing body rule,” he said.

“Al-Assad is not going to allow the country to move on. Whatever power he still has he will use to prolong the conflict... and Iran will help him to that end.”

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