Is a Syrian 'Taif agreement' imminent?

Is a Syrian 'Taif agreement' imminent?
Comment: With the arrival of new Russian and Iranian firepower in Syria, Western leaders may be more open to the idea of a "peaceful political transition", writes James Denselow.
5 min read
06 Oct, 2015
Several ceasefire agreements could be expanded under UN supervision [AFP]

At the opening of this year's United Nations General Assembly, all the talk seemed to be of Syria.

The complicated and convoluted conflict has escalated into a staggered series of local, regional and international battles. The latest twist, of course, is the arrival of Russian air power onto the scene - nominally to fight "terrorism", but so far apparently targeting Syrian opposition groups rather than IS exclusively.

Yet the dramatic escalation of Moscow's role in the conflict should not distract from the renewed push to end the conflict - one that doesn't stem from a victor-vanquished scenario, but instead a grand diplomatic bargain.

This is, of course, not a new idea - as the previous Geneva initiatives have shown. What has changed now perhaps is the dynamics of some of the key players and the wider interest shown by the US and Europe to address both IS and the refugee crisis pouring out of the Middle East.

So what could this look like? One day there will be a Syria not run by Bashar al-Assad.

Whether that happens through diplomatic or more natural means seems to pivot around the centre of any potential deal. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, fresh from her Iran success, has called on global leaders to "start a process, leading to a transition".

     Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully
- US President Barack Obama

Transition appears to be the key word and theme in any grand bargain to see peace return to Syria and one day Assad leaving power.

Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin held their first formal meeting in two years on Monday in New York. Obama's Syria policy has been largely characterised by its absence and a reluctance to get dragged into the conflict - but speaking at the UN, the US president showed clear willingness to be flexible.

"Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully," he said.

"The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognise that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo."

Previous peace conferences have foundered around issues such as Iran's presence but this appears to have changed with French President François Hollande admitting that "Russia and Iran say they want to be more involved in a political solution. We need to work with these countries, tell them that solution, transition must happen, but without Bashar al-Assad".

The key word again is "transition", as potentially this could fudge the Assad question - kicking it down the road in the interests of a short-term end to the bloodshed.

The US and European leaders appear to be on message on this - again in the General Assembly, British Foreign Minister Phillip Hammond said "the best contribution Assad and those around him can now make is to put their country's interest before their own and step aside to allow a political transition that will end the civil war and allow Syrians to unite in the struggle against Islamist extremism".

Assad, until recently so desperately on the back foot, may see a brighter future ahead.

The Institute for the Study of War said Russian intent in Syria was to assist "the regime's war effort at large, rather than securing the regime's coastal heartland of Latakia and Tartous".

     Assad, until recently so desperately on the back foot, may see a brighter future ahead

Meanwhile, reports are emerging of hundreds of Iranian troops arriving into the country to take part in ground operations in rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

There is an interesting parallel with this moment and that of the Taif - or the "National Reconciliation Accord" - which was agreed in 1989 to start a process leading to the end of the Lebanese civil war.

This was a deal, incidentally with Lakhdar Brahimi at its centre, that aligned the stars at the international, regional and local levels to put an end to the killing. It did this successfully but crucially pushed more thorny issues around the Lebanon's future - on disarmament for certain groups, accountability for war crimes and more stable political reforms etc - into a "future" process that has still yet to be realised.

Such is the intensity of the fire that is burning in Syria - allowing for the rise and rise of IS and the exodus of millions - that it appears that world leaders may be united on a process of transition that reduces and potentially ends the violence rather than a stand-off as to the future of Assad.

Western leaders who have called for his departure will know privately how diminished the Syrian president's power really is, having been forced to outsource the defence of the realm to Iran and Russia, and with half of his population on the move.

With this in mind, they may countenance a transition overseen by his new political masters in order to get a grip on the out-of-control present day.

In other words, the day that we see a Syria without Assad may come later rather than sooner.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow.

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.