Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Al-Assad’s fate

What will be the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad at the end of the current crisis, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Various proposals were put forward last week to help end the Syrian crisis that go beyond earlier initiatives suggested over the previous 20 months of the uprising in the country. Russia and the US are said to be discussing one such initiative, and Iran, the Syrian regime’s closest ally, has put forward another to help end the crisis.

Turkey has also proposed a plan that Moscow, also a supporter of the Syrian regime, has described as “innovative”. Meanwhile, the Syrian vice president has also proposed new ideas to help end the crisis.

Some of these proposals comply with the demands of the opposition to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but all focus on what Al-Assad’s future should now be. Some of them suggest that Al-Assad should remain in power until the end of his term in office in mid-2014, while others propose he should step down in a matter of weeks.

Last week, Iran proposed a ceasefire in Syria under UN supervision, to be followed by the holding of broad national dialogue that would include the opposition and would lead to the formation of a transitional government. This government’s main mission would be to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014.

According to the Iranian plan, the transitional phase would take place under Al-Assad’s continued rule, and for this reason it has been rejected out of hand by the country’s political and armed opposition.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSR) described the plan as “a desperate attempt to throw a lifeline to the Syrian regime’s sinking ship”, adding that it showed that Iran still viewed the Syrian uprising as a political dispute between two sides.

The NCSR said that Iran must first stop its political, security and economic support of the Al-Assad regime before proposing any such initiatives.

Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) also rejected the proposal and declared that Iran “is the Syrian regime’s partner in killing and destruction. A killer cannot arbitrate or mediate. If it weren’t for Iran’s support, the Syrians would have been able to connect with each other and resolve the crisis.”

Two days later, Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa made statements that observers said could be part of a new political initiative. Al-Sharaa said that “the opposition cannot resolve the battle militarily, and what the security forces and army is doing will not result in resolution either. There must be a Syrian solution that is part of a historic settlement that includes key regional countries and members of the Security Council. It must include a halt to all forms of violence and the formation of a national unity government with a broad mandate.”

Al-Sharaa could not have made such statements without the Syrian leadership’s broad support. They could be an attempt to confuse the situation further, particularly after the international community’s recognition of the NCSR as the country’s legitimate government, or they could be a prelude to compromise on the part of the regime.

The opposition rejected Al-Sharaa’s initiative, describing it as “too late and evidence of the regime’s weakness and disintegration”.

The plan that seems most feasible was the one discussed by the Russians and Americans at meetings in Geneva and Dublin that were attended by UN and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Despite the lack of detail, leaks indicate that the two sides have agreed on a plan based on the Geneva Agreement of 30 June. According to reports, Russia and the US will urge both sides in Syria to stop military operations and form a transitional government. The government would include opposition and regime figures not involved in the killings and would be headed by a figure from the opposition.

The handover of power would keep state institutions intact, including the army. However, the role of Al-Assad himself under the plan is unclear, especially since Moscow wants him to remain in power until the end of 2014 when presidential elections are due to be held.

The US, on the other hand, insists that Al-Assad should step down within two or three months. Moreover, the Russians want to see a UN Security Council resolution on Syria under Chapter VI and not Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the latter being the US’s preferred option, with the international community guaranteeing its implementation.

In parallel with the Russian-US talks, Turkey has also made a new proposal for the peaceful transfer of power in Syria that the Russians have described as an “innovative plan”. According to Ankara, Al-Assad would step down within the first three months of 2013 and hand over power to the NCSR during a transitional phase.

According to senior European diplomatic sources, the US, Russia, the UN, the Arab League and Turkey are looking into a hybrid initiative combining the US-Russian and Turkish proposals. This would see the formation of a transitional government with a broad mandate headed by the opposition, which would hold two-thirds of the seats in the new cabinet.

The transitional government would overhaul the country’s security agencies and army, draft a new constitution, and supervise early parliamentary and presidential elections. During this period, Al-Assad would remain a ceremonial president without any powers, and he would volunteer his resignation three months after the transitional government was formed.

This proposal could be acceptable to both the Russians and Americans because it would guarantee that Al-Assad would remain in power, at least for a time, thus mollifying his supporters and avoiding a possible security breakdown should the regular army collapse.

It would also protect the fate of more than 130,000 pro-regime officers and soldiers who have been participating in the regime’s crackdown on the uprising. At the same time, it would guarantee that the president would step down after a short transitional period, placating the political opposition and the revolutionaries.

The proposals are similar because they all stipulate an end to the violence and a freeze on arming the opposition and the right of the Syrian people to self-determination, while recognising the need for root-and-branch reform. They also confirm the need for a plural, democratic system with the rotation of power.

When Brahimi is in Damascus next he may put forward proposals based on the plans being discussed by the US and Russia and ask Al-Assad to name ministers who would represent the regime in the transitional government.

Brahimi may also ask the opposition to choose representatives in the interim cabinet based on the Geneva Agreement, with a new prime minister to be chosen from the ranks of the opposition. Meanwhile, a Geneva 2 conference is expected to take place soon to approve the deployment of 10,000 UN peacekeeping troops in Syria as a first step towards monitoring a ceasefire.

Nevertheless, the US-Russian plan could still fail, since it could still be rejected by the Syrian regime, as it has done all previous Arab and international initiatives. The regime knows that if it signs any such a deal it will be signing its death sentence.

Meanwhile, the shadow of possible prosecution hangs over the senior intelligence and army commanders who have led the crackdown against the protesters and have been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Syria. These people would lose their considerable privileges, and the Alawite clan that supports the regime would also possibly face retribution.

Political circles in Syria say that Al-Assad has been refusing to step down from power after 2014, insisting that he has the right to nominate himself for another seven years in office. Meanwhile, the opposition refuses to countenance Al-Assad’s remaining in office until the end of his tenure in 2014 and refuses to participate in any government that includes him.

Any proposal that does not ensure Al-Assad’s removal from office and the prosecution of key regime figures is “a waste of time,” the opposition says, and is merely an attempt to “save them from facing justice for the crimes they have committed.”

“Anyone who believes there could be a political solution while Al-Assad remains in power is delusional,” Mohieddin Al-Lazqani, a NCSR member, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Not only should Al-Assad step down, but so should the commanders of the security agencies and senior officers and anyone who has participated in the bloodshed. The Syrian people will never accept a killer of children in the presidential palace.”

“All the Syrian opposition is committed to overthrowing the regime, together with its figures, symbols and agencies. The least we will accept after 50,000 dead is that Al-Assad leaves and his criminal security institution is torn down, after it hijacked the state for the benefit of a corrupt mob.”

The initiatives imply that almost everyone is now convinced that Al-Assad cannot now remain in power. What is needed is a political solution that ends the killing before it destroys the state and gradually transfers power to the opposition under international auspices.

Yet, the Syrian regime needs to agree to this solution even as there are no guarantees that the regular army will not continue to fight to keep the regime in power. Nevertheless, the army could collapse suddenly if the balance of power tips in favour of the armed opposition, forcing the regime to accept the Russian-US proposals even if they would mean its destruction.

Russia has said that it is not concerned about the fate of the Al-Assad regime but is concerned about the future of the Syrian people.

Some observers argue that if the Syrian regime rejects this formula, or tries to undermine it by swamping it in conflicting details, this will anger Moscow and thus increase Damascus’s isolation. This could cause the US to resort to its Plan B of arming the opposition and removing the Al-Assad regime by force, even if this means Syria’s descending into chaos and sectarian conflict.

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