The 'Assad obstacle' hindering a political solution in Syria

The 'Assad obstacle' hindering a political solution in Syria
Comment: Bashar al-Assad's fate remains the most contentious issue obstructing efforts for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian war, says Burhan Ghalioun.
4 min read
20 Aug, 2015
Assad has attacked his own people with impunity [Getty]

The contention over Bashar al-Assad's role in any political settlement and transition in Syria can be traced back to the first few months of the revolution in 2011.

Protesters demanded the removal of the president in response to the brutal crackdown by regime forces. The slogan of regime loyalists was "either we have Assad or we will burn the country".

The same happened internationally. Those who called themselves the Friends of the Syrian People embraced the idea that Assad must step down, in response to the regime's excessive use of force.

At the same time, the regime's allies, led by Tehran and Moscow, wanted Assad in power in any political settlement, and refused any discussion about his fate.

This "Assad obstacle" emerged strongly at the start of international talks on Syria, which led to the UN Security Council-backed Geneva I communique. That document endorsed a settlement based on establishing a transitional governing body, but did not refer to Assad's role.
the future of the political settlement remains essentially contingent upon the fate of one person

In reality, the draft of the communique called for Assad to step down, which is consistent with the notion of a transitional government with full powers.

However, it was agreed that the reference would be redacted, keeping Assad's fate vague to guarantee Moscow would approve the text.

One person against an entire people

Now, five years into the catastrophe in Syria, the future of the political settlement remains essentially contingent upon the fate of a person who is controversial even in his own family and regime.

Indeed, for 15 years, Assad did not show political shrewdness and did little more than go from one mistake to another until Syria reached its current tragic ordeal, unprecedented in modern political history.

How did this happen? How did the world accept for the fate of 23 million people to depend on the fate of one man that everyone, including supporters, acknowledge had committed countless crimes against his people and even neighbouring ones?

It is difficult to explain why some powers are clinging and giving immunity to a such a brutal dictator.

Assad's supporters claim keeping him in power would prevent reprisals and massacres against Alawites and minorities in general. Such claims are promoted in pro-regime and pro-Iranian propaganda, which often stresses that Assad and his so-called legitimate authority must be supported against radical Islamist groups.

Another justification, which Tehran often uses, is that Assad is a key ally in the so-called axis of defiance against Israel, and that his departure would threaten this axis and the Arab-Islamic cause against Zionism and imperialism.

For its part, Moscow's argument is that the legitimate president must continue to play a key role in any transition, to preserve the institutions of the state.

In truth, this idea is starting to gather steam in other capitals, which believe that the alternative to the regime is likely to be jihadist or extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Increasingly, international diplomacy sees Assad as a guarantor of what is left of state institutions, until a political settlement is agreed and implemented. For them, this is the only acceptable option in view of the expansion of jihadist groups, and the spread of chaos and instability.

In reality, Assad's crimes against the Syrian people were the main reason for the chaos, the collapse of the state's institutions and the fuel behind civil war and terrorism.

The survival of Assad in power would be the greatest incentive for violence, hatred and the vicious cycle of vendettas to continue, and would make it more likely for sectarian massacres to take place.

The only way forward is for the Syrian opposition and the major powers to work together to establish a viable and acceptable alternative, not only to Assad's dictatorial and sectarian regime, but also to the configuration of regional relations of which Syria is now a key pillar.

* Burhan Ghalioun is a former leader of the opposition-in-exile group, the Syrian National Council.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.