Monday,18 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Monday,18 June, 2018
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Contradictions on Syria

What will happen to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the search for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in the country, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus


Contradictions on Syria
Contradictions on Syria

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Western and Arab officials have made sometimes contradictory statements about the possibility of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power during the country’s transitional phase and his standing for another term in office.

While Western intentions are by no means clear, some have understood the mixed messages emanating from various capitals as an attempt to put pressure on the Syrian opposition to accept a compromise.

On 21 August, French President Emmanuel Macron said he did not see a “legitimate alternative” to Al-Assad and that France no longer viewed his departure as a precondition for settling the conflict.

Macron said Al-Assad was “the enemy of the Syrian people, but he is not the enemy of France,” adding that French priorities were “to focus on combating terrorism and guaranteeing that Syria does not become a failed state.”

Macron’s statements contradict the position of his predecessor, former French president François Hollande, who strongly supported Al-Assad’s departure as a means to end the Syrian crisis. Macron’s statements have rescinded this condition, bringing France closer to Moscow’s stance.

The new French position came after a meeting between the presidents of France and Russia in Paris in late May that highlighted France’s desire to reduce tensions with Russia, especially regarding Syria. This is the case even though France is a core member of the “Friends of Syria” group that has demanded Al-Assad’s departure from power.

Supporters of the Syrian regime believe the shift in French policy is a victory for Al-Assad and an admission that he will remain in power. The Syrian opposition has warned that the shift shows that Al-Assad has scared the international community about the possibility of terrorism being exported abroad. 

Macron’s statement came on the heels of others by former US ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford, who spoke on 28 August about the US administration’s “deception” of the Syrian people.

Ford said Al-Assad would remain in power and might never be held accountable for the massacres he had committed against the Syrian people. He added that Al-Assad had “won the war” and that Iran had established itself in Syria. “These are facts we must accept and cannot change,” Ford asserted.

This position is very different from Washington’s earlier stance. After the outbreak of the violence in Syria in 2011, the US demanded that Al-Assad step down from power, saying that he could not remain president of Syria after killing hundreds of thousands of his own people and displacing millions.

Such statements by the Western powers have echoed those made by Syria’s neighbours, which have also been changing their tune. Spokesman for the Jordanian government Mohamed Al-Mumani said there had been progress in Jordanian-Syrian relations.

“Relations have taken a positive turn, and we will maintain this momentum,” Al-Mumani said on 25 August. Some have interpreted these statements to mean that Jordan now thinks that Al-Assad will remain in power.

Paris rowed back from Macron’s position in early September when Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian gave contradictory statements to the press. On 1 September he said that “we cannot make peace with Al-Assad. He cannot be the solution. The solution is to reach a timeline with all the actors for a political transition that allows for a new constitution and elections. This transition cannot take place with Al-Assad in power.”

US officials have also rushed to say that Al-Assad does not and will not have the confidence of the US administration. The US will not back down from demanding his prosecution for war crimes, the officials have said, adding that Washington had not demanded that he be removed immediately due to priorities in fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, supporting the Kurds and protecting Israel.

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said on 25 August that his country did not see a long-term role for Al-Assad in Syria, while Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that “it is in the interests of the Syrian people for Al-Assad to leave, but we will not make this a precondition. We are saying he must leave as part of a political transition process, and he can always participate in democratic presidential elections.”

Saudi Arabia earlier informed the Syrian opposition that it had no choice but to accept Al-Assad in power during the transitional phase, and that it must concede to Russian pressure. It then said that it supported the Syrian opposition and called for regime change as a precursor for ending the war.

The Syrians have thus been hearing contradictory statements, sometimes insisting on Al-Assad leaving office and sometimes accepting that he will stay in power. These contradictory positions usually comply with Russian-US understandings on cooling down the battle fronts in Syria, striking local conciliations, curbing Iran’s influence, constricting opposition demands and finding a compromise even if it is disliked by the parties.

Six years ago, former US president Barack Obama called on Al-Assad to step down, but he did not have a strategy inside Syria to achieve this goal and did not strive to accomplish it while he was in power. Instead, the US was accused of being passive and not doing enough to protest against the massacres committed by the Syrian regime.

The Syrian conflict has killed between half a million and one million people, displaced half the country’s population, and seriously damaged infrastructure and vital economic and production facilities at a cost of billions of dollars.

In reducing the pressure on Al-Assad, the US is ignoring European and Arab statements on the matter by calling for a political solution when he is still in power and even though Al-Assad is allied with Tehran and Moscow.

The cost of Al-Assad leaving may be greater than of his staying, however. Removing Al-Assad from power could effectively mean rearming the opposition and allowing Syria to enter a yet more vicious war, especially given the fact that Russia, Iran and sectarian militias are fighting for the Al-Assad regime.

It is possible that Syria will become a failed state under the American definition, which may be why the US administration is considering accommodating Al-Assad based on military conditions he will be forced to accept.

At the same time, Al-Assad’s remaining in office will make peace in Syria impossible. He cannot become an ally of the US because of failed attempts by the US to remove him in the past. Neither can he become an ally of Europe.

Most importantly, he cannot be accepted by the millions of Syrians who have been victims of the war, or as a normal president by the undecided who have watched Al-Assad destroy the country under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

He has used chemical weapons against his own people and killed civilians. He has opened up Syrian territory to Iran and sectarian militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan in order to defend Iranian interests and his regime.

Without a comprehensive political solution, there will be no end to the war in Syria. Without political change, stability cannot be achieved. Without a transitional body with a full mandate, demanded by successive international resolutions on Syria, the opposition will never accept to engage with the Al-Assad regime to build a free and democratic future.

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