A new piece from yours truly went online at LobeLog yesterday, and while I think the main point still holds, I’ll admit that it got a little overtaken by events (I sent it in late Friday afternoon, before…well, you know). Please go read it anyway!
See, on Saturday, in the aftershock of the Paris attack, the various participants in the Syrian Peace Talks Without Any Syrians actually agreed on a peace plan for Syria, at least in broad terms. The plan follows the outline of a Russian proposal that was made before everybody met in Vienna, one that envisions an 18 month transition toward elections in 2017. What kind of transition? I don’t know. What kind of elections? Beats me. Bashar al-Assad holds “elections” every seven years, which proves nothing except that you can stretch the concept of “elections” pretty far in a quest for phony legitimacy.
Most of the details remain to be filled in through direct negotiations between Assad and the Syrian opposition, but then there’s another giant sticking point: who, exactly, is the Syrian opposition? Everybody agrees that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are out, but apart from that…well, let’s say that Russia and Saudi Arabia have very different ideas about what constitutes a legitimate opposition. And the actual on-the-ground Syrian opposition also probably has its own ideas on that front, wouldn’t you think?
My point in the peace, echoing one made by Robert Ford, the former US Ambassador to Syria, in a piece he wrote last week for the Middle East Institute, was that these peace talks, if they’re to have any hope of achieving peace, need to move past the narrow focus on whether Assad stays or goes and focus on the bigger picture, which is implementing real democratic reform:
Simply holding elections is not enough. Syria holds “presidential elections” every seven years, and they’re a farce. They were held as referendums (i.e., Assad standing unopposed) until the constitution was changed in 2012 to allow multi-candidate elections. Assad then won a “contested” election in 2014 that was tainted by opposition boycotts and the fact that nobody living in rebel-held areas of the country was able to vote. If it were possible to hold truly free and fair elections, respecting the rule of law, in a united Syria tomorrow, Assad would not likely win. His forces, after all, have spent over four years killing tens of thousands of Syrians and displacing millions more. Still, it’s not impossible. The question facing the participants in the Vienna talks—as well as Assad and the Syrian rebels whose goal is a civil, democratic Syria—is whether or not they will go along with a political transition that will likely see Assad removed from office but that leaves open the possibility that he might remain.
Russia and Iran always talk about letting the Syrian people decide who should lead them, so why not make that the goal? My guess is that Assad’s presidency would be unlikely to survive a free and fair vote, in which case you’ve satisfied the anti-Assad contingent’s demand that he must go, but you’ve achieved it in a way that doesn’t give the pro-Assad contingent much room to complain, at least not if they don’t want to look like hypocrites. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Assad could win a free and fair vote, which is where the anti-Assad forces (in particular Turkey and Saudi Arabia) need to bend a little.
I completely understand the Syrian rebels’ demand that Assad be removed from power immediately and put on trial for his many crimes against humanity, but at some point realism has to trump your ideal outcome. Assad was going to be hard to dislodge from his Latakia-Damascus enclave before the Russian intervention, and now his forces are actually back on the offensive pretty much all over the map. In particular, they’ve recently broken ISIS’s siege of the Kweires air base, outside of Aleppo, a victory that frees some 2000 Syrian soldiers who had been trapped there, puts Assad’s forces in position to surround the rebels controlling eastern Aleppo, and also (apropos of nothing) kind of makes it clear that Russia is attacking ISIS at least sometimes. The Syrian army looks like it’s about to take control of the entirety of the Damascus-Aleppo highway, a turn of events that would have been unthinkable before Moscow’s decision to get involved.
So, look, Assad isn’t going anywhere by force, unless the Syrian army suddenly decides to start taking orders from Max Fisher and Full Professor Jeff “Newsroom” Wilhelm. The only way to remove him is going to be by negotiated settlement with Russia and Iran, and they’ve made it clear that they won’t accept his removal as a precondition to political transition. So why not insist on a genuine transition and then trust that the same people Assad has been slaughtering for the past four years aren’t going to vote to re-elect the guy? If you can’t put him on trial for his crimes, that would be a shame, but he wouldn’t be the first horrible dictator to escape justice for the horrible things he did while in power. Ending the war has to be the more important concern for the Syrian people, doesn’t it? It’s certainly become the more important concern for most of these international players, now that ISIS has raised the stakes.
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