The recent decision by the United States to start arming the Syrian opposition, coupled with the intervention by Hizbullah in al-Qusayr point to a deepening conflict in Syria. In the current context, the prospect of a peaceful solution based on a political compromise at the Geneva II Conference next month is desperately slim. The regime appears determined to eradicate the opposition using the tactics of 1982, while Assad’s opponents have doubled down on their efforts topple him with a better-funded and increasingly radicalized insurgency.
Given the reluctance of the Obama administration to get its hands dirty in Syria up to this point, what to make of its recent policy shift? Hizbullah’s strike on al-Qusayr was both a military operation and a PR campaign about the intransigence of the Resistance Axis; similarly, the US decision to provide arms to the rebels is less an operational game-changer than a warning that Obama will not sit idly by and watch Assad cut his way to Aleppo with Hizbullah’s help.
The tone set by pro-Assad commentators on the Lebanese talk show circuit last week was unusually triumphalist: one politician after another trotted out the same narrative that Hizbullah’s victory in al-Qusayr means that the regime is winning, and so their opponents need to adjust their expectations and demands accordingly. In the war for public opinion, the opposition desperately needed a shot in the arm, which they finally got last week.
Which brings us back to Geneva. I am not very hopeful that either side is willing to discuss seriously a “democratic transition” (which has now eclipsed “peace process” as the most disputed term in Middle Eastern politics). In the current environment, even the most basic set of confidence-building measures is very difficult to achieve, partly because the opposition is unwilling to legitimize Bashar al-Assad by negotiating with him, and partly because the regime does not want to offer any meaningful concessions before a framework is established.
In this respect, the Geneva conference ironically presents even more hurdles than the Syria-Israel peace negotiations in 2008, because in the latter case both sides were mostly in agreement about the shape of the final compromise. No such agreement exists today.
Putting aside these objections, however, it is still worth reflecting on what each side’s view of that compromise might be, assuming a political solution is worth contemplating. Just for the sake of argument, what might such a transition look like from the regime’s perspective?
This is the question I recently put to a few people with close contacts in the Syrian government, and certain key principles emerged from our conversations. I can’t confirm how far up the chain this goes and how current it is, but I thought it would be worth giving it a public airing for the purposes of discussion.
1. The opposition and its foreign supporters must end their calls to topple the regime: There can be no political solution that sets as a precondition the toppling of the regime. This is an impossible demand given the support that the government enjoys among many Syrians, and also because of fears that Assad’s departure would create a power vacuum that the opposition would not be able to fill, given its own fractiousness and the role played by radical Islamists.
The regime is willing to accept major far-reaching changes to the power structure, but a “decapitation” scenario (as in Egypt and Tunisia) is simply not feasible given Syria’s confessional and ethnic makeup, the loyalty of the armed forces to the political leadership, etc. The call for Bashar al-Assad to step down is a non-starter.
2. A national coalition government and constitutional amendments: The first step in the transition process would likely be the formation of a national coalition government composed of loyalist and opposition figures. The government’s role would be to discuss further amendments to the Constitution, which would eventually be put to a vote in an internationally-monitored referendum. For any election to be seen as legitimate by all Syrians, it would have to be supervised by a balanced set of monitors agreeable to both sides. This is true of the broader political settlement as well.
3. Televised negotiations: Initial negotiations between the regime and the opposition could be publicly televised, in the interests of transparency and accountability, as well as national reconciliation. The regime would also be open to holding public discussions about constitutional amendments, as mentioned by Bashar al-Assad on more than one occasion. Obviously, this process would have to be carefully planned and managed so that it doesn’t turn into a political circus…
4. A strengthened premiership: The regime will accept the results of free and fair parliamentary elections monitored by credible election monitors. The Parliament would elect a Prime Minister who would be fully empowered — in practice, not in theory — to carry out the powers granted by the Constitution. Foreign policy and defense would remain the prerogative of the President, while the Prime Minister’s office would oversee the economy, education, public works, etc.
5. Presidential elections: The regime is committed to holding free and fairly monitored presidential elections in 2014. It is also open to discussing the question of the current president’s future role in the country at the Geneva conference, but the official position is that the Syrian people will decide whether or not President al-Assad will be re-elected in 2014.
6. Separation of religion and politics: The current political parties law, which disallows the formation of parties on the basis of religious or ethnic identity, must remain in force. Parties must hold members from all confessional communities in order to be considered legal and eligible to contest elections. This does not prevent a religious conservative candidate from running as an independent and joining a coalition government. It simply means that candidates cannot form religious or ethnic parties and run on such platforms.
7. Not a final solution: The settlement reached at Geneva would only be the beginning of a political transition. Changes in the regional climate — with regard to Arab-Israeli peace, for example — would naturally change the pace of internal change, as would a dampening of sectarian tensions in the region.
As I said, I am not going to pretend that Bashar al-Assad scribbled this on a napkin when I saw him in Damascus last Tuesday, but I trust that this schema is not a terrible distortion of reality. My sources have historically been very good at assessing the strategic mindset of Syria’s leadership, which is why I publish it here today.
The floor is open.