5 Obstacles That We Must Overcome in Syria -- Starting with Assad

By Randa Slim | Senior Fellow and Director of Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program - The Middle East Institute | Nov 17, 2015
5 Obstacles That We Must Overcome in Syria -- Starting with Assad

This article was first published on The World Post.

Under the pall cast by the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, the U.S., Russia and other world powers met in Vienna Saturday and agreed on a timetable for a political process in Syria. However, the principles and steps they set conjure a sense of déjà vu.

They are similar to the ones outlined in a 2012 Geneva communiqué, which called for a Syrian-led political transition, including a transitional governing body formed on the basis of mutual consent. Because there's strong Syrian opposition to the regime, mutual consent assumes that Syrian President Bashar Assad cannot be part of this transitional body. Herein lies the biggest unresolved issue.

Only the timetable of the transitional period outlined in Vienna is new. And given the realities on the ground, we should consider this timetable more aspirational than practical. They agreed on convening UN-sponsored negotiations between Syrian government and opposition representatives by Jan. 1; setting a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution within six months; holding free and fair elections within 18 months; and calling a UN-led cease-fire (excluding agreed-upon terrorist groups) to come into effect upon the launch of the transitional period.

After the Paris attacks by ISIS, there is new international momentum pushing for a solution to the conflict in Syria. However, in addition to eliminating ISIS, a durable solution will require a political transition that drives Assad out of power. Achieving one and not the other is a recipe for a protracted conflict.

The fact that the discussions in Vienna in 2015 are still stuck on the same negotiation framework as elaborated in the 2012 Geneva communique confirms that there are no new magic bullets. In fact, the sticking points preventing a political solution have increased. They are as follows:

1. The number of opposition parties is far more diverse than in 2012.

On the political side, attempts to form a united political opposition front have failed. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces has no legitimacy inside Syria and can no longer be considered the sole political representative of all the rebel and opposition groups and forces in Syria. The large non-jihadi Syrian rebel groups have established their own political offices and are developing their own political platforms.

Non-ISIS and non-al Nusra-affiliated Syrian rebel formations number in the thousands. Though they are more battle-hardened and better armed than in 2012, they are not united. And there's also al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which is an important player among the anti-Assad rebel groups.

2. The short-term impact of the Russian intervention has been to strengthen the regime narrative that Assad is here to stay.

While the Syrian regime is weaker and holds less territory than in 2012, due to the Russian intervention, defections from the senior regime political and/or military ranks are now unlikely to occur. In addition to the Syrian army, Iranian pro-regime militias known as the National Defense forces are operating alongside the Lebanese Hezbollah and an array of pro-Iranian Iraqi and Afghan militias. Advisors from the Iranian Quds force play a leading role in the planning and conduct of the regime military campaign.

3. Local parties are now more beholden to their regional and extra-regional patrons than was the case in 2012.

In addition to Russian intervention, Iran has enhanced its leverage over the Syrian regime. On the opposition side, thanks to their money supply and weapons delivery, the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan hold sway over different parts of the non-ISIS and non-al Nusra affiliated rebel formations.

While the ability of patrons to get their clients to adhere to their demands is often exaggerated, as proven time and again by Assad's lack of compliance with Russian demands to release political prisoners, it is still possible that under the right conditions, this external leverage helps in getting the warring camps to abide by the terms of a ceasefire and/or to agree to negotiate in good faith. On the other hand, the competing interests of external actors often complicate the negotiations among local stakeholders by constraining the negotiators' bargaining range.

4. After four and a half years of indiscriminate violence, torture and bloodshed, Syrians are further divided by mistrust and fear.

To commit to a political process, Syrians would need strong guarantees about their future. Pro-opposition constituents would require guarantees of a timetable that would see Assad out of power at the end of it. Pro-regime constituents, especially among the Alawites, would need guarantees for their safety and their role in a post-Assad Syria. And then there's the question of who the guarantors would be.

5. The peace process cannot go far as long as it skirts the issue of what to do about Assad and his security apparatus.

By stating their commitment to "ensure a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition based on the Geneva communique in its entirety," the Vienna negotiators are reaffirming the clause in Geneva that gives both the regime and the opposition veto powers over who participates in the transitional governing body, thus making it impossible for Assad to be part of the future governing structure in Syria. Still, this will not be enough. Opposition groups will insist that the issue be clarified.

The Russo-Iranian camp is still insisting that Assad's fate should be decided by the Syrians in a Syrian-led political process involving presidential elections in which Assad can run. Their stance is partly driven by their conviction that there is no current alternative to Assad that would preserve state institutions and prevent the fall of Damascus to ISIS. Russia and Iran have proven their willingness to pour money, weapons and men to keep Assad in power. And they are not likely to compromise this position anytime soon. In contrast, the U.S. administration and its allies are betting on inter-Syrian negotiations to "create conditions under which a clear and broadly acceptable alternative (to Assad) can emerge."

It is naïve to expect that after four and a half years of fighting for political survival, Assad and the leaders of his security agencies will negotiate their way out of Syria. They will leave only if pressured militarily and if their patrons abandon them. We need to exponentially ramp up military and financial support for the Syrian rebels and thereby send a strong message to Russia and Iran that despite their military interventions, they will not able to dictate the terms of a solution in Syria. Negotiations alone will not achieve peace in Syria.