Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

It’s not just Assad

As the Syrian opposition prepares for talks with the regime in January, many are wary that ambiguity on Al-Assad’s fate may derail the talks, writes Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Back then, this seemed like the final word on the Syrian crisis. Major world and regional countries meeting in Switzerland on 30 June 2012 issued a communiqué, known as the Geneva Declaration, delineating the manner in which the Syrian conflict could be brought to an end.

But more than three years later, and with little or no progress, everyone was back to the drawing board. Using the Geneva Declaration as a blueprint, the international community produced another document, this one called the Vienna Declaration, on how best to settle the Syrian conflict.

The two documents are similar in many ways, but the second document added a timetable to the proposed steps, which suggests a higher level of resolve and more attention to detail than in the past.

Absent from the two documents is a clear statement on the fate of President Bashar Al-Assad. In fact, critics of the Vienna Declaration say that it is a step back from the Geneva Declaration, as the latter called for a governing body to assume full executive powers in the country. This means that Al-Assad, even if not immediately removed from office, was going to be stripped of all authority.

Or at least, this is the interpretation the Syrian opposition generally prefers.

Verbatim, the Geneva Declaration calls for:

“The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”

The Vienna Declaration, by contrast, notes that:

“The [signatories] reaffirmed their support for the transition process contained in the 2012 Geneva Communiqué. In this respect they affirmed their support for a ceasefire as described above and for a Syrian-led process that will, within a target of six months, establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance, and set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution.

“Free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months. These elections must be administered under UN supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.”

The wording of the Vienna Declaration, although more business-like than its predecessor, replaced the reference to a “governing body” with “inclusive and non-sectarian governance.” Many Syrian opposition members are wary that this may prevent the changes the country needs.

Butt the Vienna Declaration does introduce a timetable for the transition: early January for talks, six months for forming an interim government, and 18 months for holding presidential elections.

Pressured by regional and international powers, the Syrian opposition met in Saudi Arabia to select a delegation to represent it in the talks with the regime, due to start in a few weeks.

Syrian former minister and current opposition member Marwan Habash is willing to recognise the importance of the Vienna Declaration.

“Although the Vienna Declaration lacks decisiveness on many issues, it is still a breakthrough, for it sets a timetable for negotiations, for political change, and for ending the war,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Habib Haddad, another minister-turned-opposition member, shares this view. But he is concerned about Al-Assad’s future.

“The new international initiative must be accepted. But rehabilitating Al-Assad is out of the question,” Haddad said.

According to Haddad, the Vienna Declaration “aims at creating the right climate for negotiations and must be dealt with in a spirit of positive responsibility, while addressing some of its drawbacks.”

He added, “To continue this conflict, which has been derailed from its national and social framework, is to continue the destruction of Syria.”

Samir Aytah, founder of the Democratic Platform, expects some of the provisions of the Vienna Declaration to be altered before or during the upcoming negotiations.

“The declaration was issued in exceptional circumstances, only one day after the Paris attacks. Therefore, its provisions will be altered in a way that ends some of the uncertainty [about] the fate of Al-Assad, the army, and the security services,” he told the Weekly.

But it isn’t just Al-Assad’s fate that matters in any future agreement. Many believe that Al-Assad and his late father, who ruled the country for 50 years, are but the thin edge of the wedge — the face that the country’s oppressive security apparatus offers to the world.

Those who hold this view don’t see the continuation or removal of Al-Assad as the main point, as the president is but a cog in a mighty machine. This machine is the one that oppressed the Syrians for five decades, before it started killing them en masse after the revolution.

This machine, a web of corruption and brutality that extends into industry, business and government, is what must be terminated.

Put another way, removing Al-Assad alone is not going to end the crisis. The security services, if left unchanged, will be able to create another leader who can halt all democratic prospects in the country.

This is why the Syrians need a clear commitment from international guarantors that Syria’s vicious security system will be overhauled. Otherwise, the crisis will drag on, albeit in a new guise.

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