Time to Boost Syria’s Political Transition

May 9, 2016

“Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”, worked out between Russia and the US and approved by the UNSC through Resolution 2268, entered into force on February 27, 2016. For two months, despite violations, it seemed to hold inspiring cautious optimism. However, two major challenges remained.

The first was the launching of not just talks but “meaningful talks” between the regime and the opposition. On March 21, Reuters reported that U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura described Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” in response to regime’s representative Bashar Ja’afari who said that Assad’s future had “nothing to do” with the negotiations.

The second was how to deal with terrorist organizations not only as a short-term battlefield issue but also a long-term problem for Syria and beyond. Under the terms of the “Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”, Russia and the US were expected to delineate, with other members of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force, the territory held by “Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council” which were excluded from the cessation of hostilities. It was obvious that in view of conflicting interests this would be easier said than done.

Political transition talks have not made any progress confirming Staffan de Mistura’s broad assessment. And last week, the complicated ground situation around Aleppo; al-Nusra’s efforts “to shield itself with groups that are not a part of it” to use Foreign Minister Lavrov’s words; the bombing of a hospital by regime aircraft threatened the ceasefire. So once again, Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov were at the forefront trying to save the day. It was finally announced that Syrian military and non-jihadist rebel forces had agreed to a temporary truce around Aleppo.

The cessation of hostilities was an important achievement. It showed that Russia and the US could engage in result-oriented cooperation as major actors and it gave the people of Syria a much needed respite. But since putting an end to violence was the most urgent issue, it appears that securing regional powers’ full commitment to its terms and addressing Syria’s future in a substantial way somehow took the backseat. Thus, Syria’s warring parties may have thought that their agreeing to the cessation of hostilities was a huge concession allowing them to restate their maximalist positions at the table.

On his return from Geneva, Secretary Kerry briefed the press in Washington on May 3, 2016. He took care to urge the Syrian parties not to resort to violence no matter what the pretext; he underlined his cooperation with this Russian counterpart; and, he referred once again to the Assad problem:
“… as long as Assad is there, the opposition is not going to stop fighting him, one way or the other… And so it will continue and there will be no long-term security and peace for Syria. It’s just not going to happen. And we have said that clearly to the Russians, clearly to the Iranians, and others have said it – not just us. The Saudis have said it, the Qataris have said it, the Turks have said it, the other participants in this endeavor, all of them – France, Germany, Britain, everybody at the table has said you can’t end this as long as Assad continues, because Assad cannot reunite the country. It’s that simple… So that’s the choice, and Russia and Iran are going to have to recognize – as they have, I think, in the political process they’ve adopted – that they have embraced a transition, a transitional governing body. That is clearly what Geneva says, that is clearly what the 2254 resolution says, and if they’re not prepared to follow up on it, and quickly, this will not hold…

The day before in Geneva, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, standing next to Secretary Kerry, had gone further: “… Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered. He will leave. He can leave through a political process, which we hope he will do, or he will be removed by force.” Since no questions were taken, nobody could ask the Minister who exactly would do that. And, two days later, “I do not think that anyone will decide to play dangerous games and carry out any provocations due to the fact that there are Russian Aerospace Forces stationed [in Syria],” Minister Lavrov said when asked about the possibility of a Turkish or Saudi Arabian incursion.

Everybody agrees that President Assad mismanaged the protests back in 2011. He failed to display flexibility. His repressive measures played more into the hands of those who were after power rather than those seeking democratic transformation. He committed crimes against his own people regardless of the fact that some soon became or were already proxies of external actors. His armed forces were merciless against civilians. Nearly 400,000 Syrians lost their lives. Twelve million people are displaced, living in misery. And, according to many, President Assad should end up before the International Criminal Tribunal. However, focusing exclusively on one person gives the impression that this is also an endeavor to whitewash all others who should somehow account for their involvement in Syria’s proxy wars. This has been and still is a dirty war.

America’s friends and allies all wish to see Assad go as Secretary Kerry says. Perhaps unintentionally but reflecting his deeper understanding, he referred to them in two groups. So the question becomes, “do France, Germany and Britain on the one side and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on the other, agree on what sort of a regime should replace Assad’s rule?” It may be worth remembering in this connection that before the storm hit Syria, women were able to vote in elections; they were able to drive; they were able to rise to prominent positions in bureaucracy; and, the country had a relatively secular political culture by Middle Eastern standards. Would all of this be maintained in post-Assad Syria? Would Syria’s new regime allow expression of dissent; would it respect fundamental rights and freedoms, prominently among them freedom of expression? “This for the Syrians to decide…” is simply not good enough an answer because this is what the fight against Assad was claimed to be about.

The US and Russia have managed to secure the cessation of hostilities. They now need to weigh in on political transition. Assad may have become the symbol of the Syria’s unraveling but he still has supporters. If those who are eagerly waiting to succeed him emerge from this chaos as a group of revanchist radicals, Syria will never see peace again as a united country. And, at least at this stage, Assad needs to show flexibility. In an interview with the RIA News Agency, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov recently said, “Assad is not an ally for us. Yes, we support him in the fight against terror and in preserving the Syrian state. But he is not an ally in the sense Turkey is an ally for the United States.” This reflects some frustration with Assad. Moreover, having displayed its capacity to militarily intervene in Syria, Moscow’s long-term interests lie in giving proof of its peace-making capacity rather than constantly propping up Assad, and he needs to recognize that. One may ask, “but, isn’t Assad almost wholly dependent on Russia?” Indeed, but negotiating with Syrians can be a test of patience, an extremely nerve-wracking experience, even for the Russians. Warren Christopher, known for his persistence, had gone to Damascus 24 times during his four years (l993-1997) as secretary of state, every time to leave empty-handed.

To conclude, a brief word on Turkey’s relations with Syria:
Hafez Assad, the father, ruled over Syria for thirty years until his death in 2000. As of the early 1980s, to disrupt Turkey’s internal peace, he gave every support to the PKK, a terrorist organization recognized as such internationally. Despite irrefutable evidence he denied involvement. It was only after Turkey threatened military action in 1998 that Hafez Assad bowed to pressure and sent PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan out of Syria. After his death, Turkey, in a remarkable show of goodwill, decided to turn the page and launched a period of cooperation with his son. Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (JDP) cultivated extremely close relations with him. But the Arab Spring and the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood’s coming to power changed everything. Assad soon became a public enemy and Turkey’s relations with Syria went back to square to one. The consequences of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict have been entirely and extremely negative. One example would suffice: Five years ago Turkey did not have a PYD/YPG problem and this was not an issue between Ankara on one side and Washington and Moscow on the other. Such is the strange trajectory of relations between two Middle Eastern neighbors…

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