Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Taking the Syrian pulse

The third round of the Geneva negotiations on Syria have started with unexpected initiatives whose success will depend on the US and Russia, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was no wonder that the third round of Syria talks in Geneva stalled. The Syrian regime delegation arrived for the third round of negotiations carrying just one proposal: the formation of a unity government between the regime and opposition under the current Syrian constitution that gives President Bashar Al-Assad sweeping powers.

Meanwhile, the opposition is sticking to its proposal for the formation of a transitional governing body with full powers, as set forth in the Geneva Declaration and affirmed by subsequent UN Resolutions, rejecting any role for the Syrian president during or after the transition.

 The yawning gap between the two parties signaled early on that the talks might fail, which is exactly what happened when the opposition realised that no solution could be reached. The opposition demanded a suspension of negotiations until such time as the regime honored the ceasefire and allowed the entry of aid into besieged areas.

A flurry of new initiatives emerged as the first session of the talks began. The outlines of at least three of them are known, all falling outside the scope of the Geneva or the Vienna Declarations and unrelated to the principles forming the basis of the Geneva Conference.

All of them clearly favour the regime, which has prompted the Syrian opposition to threaten to withdraw from the negotiations.

The first proposal, presented by UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to the opposition delegation, provides for the appointment of three deputies to the president who would share presidential powers, to be followed by the formation of a broad government under the current constitution.

The opposition has rejected the proposal, reiterating that it is against giving any powers to Al-Assad and the constitution that grants him absolute authority.

The second initiative came from a Russian official, who proposed the appointment of five deputies to the Syrian president, chosen from opposition and regime figures. These deputies and Al-Assad would function as a presidential council with executive, military, security, legislative and judicial authority.

For the opposition, the main problem with this proposal is that Al-Assad would head the presidential council.

The third proposal, being considered by the Russians and Americans in secret according to leaked reports, calls for the declaration of temporary constitutional principles, followed by a power-sharing arrangement in Syria modelled on the Iraqi and Lebanese system of political quotas.

The opposition rejected the idea even before it was announced, since the proposed system has given rise to quasi-failed states perpetually on the verge of or in the midst of civil war.

“Regardless of who would agree to be a deputy to a criminal like Al-Assad, this power-sharing arrangement has not worked in any of the countries where it has been applied,” said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, an NGO.

 “Dictators wait for the end of the revolution and the end of international pressure before pouncing on the opposition, as was seen in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. The solution in Syria is not based on power-sharing, but on a fundamental transition to a new democratic system that respects all Syrians and treats them all equally,” he said.

The Syrian opposition views the proposals with suspicion as all of them come from outside the framework of international resolutions on the Syrian crisis and are unrelated to the main objective of the Geneva Conference.

It says that the Syrian regime, and behind it Russia, do not want a resolution of the crisis and are trying to confuse matters, divide the international community, and set aside all primary international agreements, citing the recent parliamentary elections convened by the regime and supported by Russia despite their international rejection.

The elections were an attempt to hijack events and seize the upper hand, even though they were held in only a small part of Syria. On the ground, power is distributed among the warring parties, with the largest part of the country controlled by extremist forces such as the Islamic State (IS) group, while the armed opposition controls another section.

Kurdish forces control another part, and finally the regime controls another. In regime territory, there are foreign forces under Iranian and Russian control, as well as Afghan, Iraqi and Lebanese militias. Half the Syrian people have been left homeless.

Fayez Sarah, a member of the Syrian opposition, named factors other than elections that the regime is attempting to exploit to undermine the negotiations. “In addition to the elections, there is the military situation on the ground that the regime is attempting to change,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The regime and its allies have resumed military operations in Damascus, Aleppo and the central region. They have broken the ceasefire and brought it to the edge of collapse. Iran has also announced that it is sending forces to Syria to fight with regime forces, and fighters with Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan militias have increased markedly on all these fronts in an attempt to create a situation that improves the regime’s negotiating stance or strengthens its ability to obstruct a political solution.”

The opposition is insisting on a political process that begins with the formation of a transitional body that has no place for Al-Assad, followed by the drafting of a new constitution.

This puts the ball in the court of the international community, whose major powers have set a six-month deadline for the formation of the transitional body. That was three months ago.

Hopes have been placed on the talks between the US and Russia on a constitutional declaration that could provide a platform for a political resolution. If Washington succeeds in granting broad powers to the transitional governing body and reducing the president’s role, this could mark the beginning of a resolution to the Syrian crisis.

But if Russia insists on keeping the army and security under Al-Assad, there will be no resolution no matter what other powers are granted to the transitional body.

While the US could pressure its allies to accept the second option of Al-Assad maintaining control of security and military affairs, the attempt will fail because the forces making up the opposition negotiating delegation have threatened to withdraw if it is accepted.

The armed opposition has also threatened to resume military operations if all powers are not revoked from Al-Assad.

The Cairo Syrian opposition conference presented its own proposal, which appears to offer a compromise that could work constitutionally while skirting discussion of Al-Assad’s fate. The proposal involves dividing the transitional body into five parts – a legislative council, a supreme judicial council, and a transitional government with full powers with a subordinate military council to oversee military and security affairs and a subordinate transitional justice body – which would work together as one.

Its mission would be to hold parliamentary and presidential elections under a new constitution. It is still not known how this proposal has been received by the wider opposition or the regime, but some European circles believe it has received joint Arab, Russian and American approval and could be built on.

European sources believe that the Syrian regime learned of Russian approval of the proposal and held the parliamentary elections to undermine it. The regime has also started efforts to retake Aleppo with its Iranian allies, Hizbullah, and Shia sectarian militias, without consulting Russia.

Moscow has refrained from participating and has contributed just enough to send the message that Al-Assad remains under Russian patronage.

The proposal implicitly calls for the formation of a government with full powers led by Al-Assad, but the real power would rest with its members who would likely be chosen by Moscow with some nominations from the UN envoy.

Throughout the transition period, Al-Assad would be made to understand that he would do better to exit the scene and find political refuge. This would meet the demands of the Syrian people and some regional states for Al-Assad’s exit, but the solution would put Syria under Russian tutelage.

No one knows if this sudden flurry of proposals offers serious plans or simply trial balloons designed to test the pulse of the warring parties in Syria. They also depend on Moscow and Washington’s ability to pressure their respective allies to accept them and to persuade regional parties that their interests are secure.

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