US President Barack Obama’s Syria-related objective remains one of negotiated political transition consistent with what the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5) decided in Geneva in June 2012. It is important, therefore, to understand what was actually agreed.

Questions posed by reporters to government officials about the Geneva agreement sometimes receive garbled answers. Although the agreement itself is not entirely free of subtlety and even ambiguity, there is no basis for fudging the answer to one key question: does it require that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resign and depart at any procedural stage? The answer is no, it does not.

The Syrian opposition recognized within minutes of the signing that there was no Assad-related requirement for preemptive resignation, departure, harakiri, or surrender. Its reaction to the Geneva agreement was therefore negative: surely the great powers should deliver the head of the dictator on a silver platter before anyone deigns to negotiate over the future of Syria.

The reaction of Assad to the agreement orchestrated by former joint special envoy of the UN and the League of Arab States for Syria Kofi Annan was even more negative. The only difference between Assad and the opposition was that Assad apparently read the document. He understood the actual import of what had been agreed in Geneva: family rule in Syria had been handed a death sentence. The Russian Federation also came to appreciate the bottom line meaning of the Geneva text, and it would eventually fall in line behind Assad’s rejection of the initiative, reneging on its agreement by trying to renegotiate key passages of the Final Communiqué and strip phrases such as “full executive powers” of meaning.

Moscow had initially emerged from the Geneva discussions satisfied that it had avoided language calling explicitly for Assad to step aside. Indeed, Russia had also resisted language that would have made continuing governing roles for people with blood on their hands inadmissible. Russian diplomats had argued vociferously that this phraseology would be a direct, if nameless, reference to their client: a correct deduction and a striking admission.

Yet Russia had agreed to two critical provisions in the communiqué that Assad would appropriately deem toxic for his continued rule: formation of a transitional governing body by opposition and government negotiators on the basis of mutual consent, meaning mutual veto; and the exercise by this governing body of full executive powers once its composition was agreed. So Assad, his relatives, his cronies and his enablers would not be part of any transitional national unity government absent the unlikely permission of the opposition; and the regime would be required to relinquish all governing authority once the new body came into being. No wonder Assad found the document utterly objectionable. No wonder he prevailed on Moscow to try to undo that to which Russia had consciously agreed.

Beyond the guidelines for negotiations and the transitional governing body, the very purpose and definition of Syrian political transition made a continuing role for the regime in Syria’s governance impossible. Not even Russia could or would argue that continued regime rule could be made compatible with the calls of UN Security Council Resolutions 2042 and 2043 for transition in Syria to a “democratic, plural system,” language expanded in the Final Communiqué to include phrases such as “multi-party democracy” and “independence of the judiciary, accountability of those in government and the rule of law.” The glaringly obvious differences between democracy, pluralism, and law on the one hand and Assad and his arbitrary, larcenous system on the other simply could not and cannot be bridged by plaintive pleas that Assad be given a chance to implement reforms. The opportunity before Assad and his family now is to stop the regime’s campaign of state terror and permit the transition to go forward consistent with the Geneva agreement. Reforms can eventually be accomplished by real reformers. Assad can order the cessation of artillery, aerial, and missile bombardments of residential areas: attacks that make no pretense of being directed against military targets, attacks that have created a humanitarian catastrophe, attacks that have put the Syrian state and all of its neighbors in grave jeopardy.

Critics of the Geneva agreement say that even if the transition takes place as described—even if Assad plays by the rules and yields power to a government from which the regime (meaning the family and its enforcers) is excluded—there is nothing mandating the dictator’s departure. The critics are correct.

If Assad wishes to yield power and then loiter in Syria to experience full accountability through the due process of transitional Syrian justice, there is nothing in the Geneva text that would bar him from doing so. Indeed, the decent thing for him to do would be to place himself voluntarily at the disposal of judicial authorities to face the charges that would otherwise follow him for the balance of his lifetime: charges that will stick to his person whether he submits or not, whether he leaves Syria or not, and whether he cooperates with the Geneva political transition process or not.

Clearly the Geneva formula offers Assad a face-saving means to transfer power in a way that can preserve major portions of existing state institutions and relieve his own community and other minorities of the jeopardy in which he has placed them by starting a fight that has become increasingly, inevitably, and alarmingly sectarian in nature. Very few Alawites, Christians, Druze, or Shia have participated in or supported the family’s criminality. Yet by attracting jihadists to Syria through the use of blatantly sectarian tactics Assad has endangered all minorities in a cynical attempt to bind them to his political survival. The Nusra Front may as well be financed by the regime: its emergence is one of the few pieces of good news the regime has received over the past two years.

Still, if any one single individual has the power to save Syria it is Assad. The Geneva approach does not require him to abase himself; it does not oblige him to sneak away like a thief in the night. Yet it does require him to accept and make the down payment on Syria’s salvation: a full transfer of executive authority to a new government from which he and his regime will be excluded.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is trying to secure Assad’s active cooperation in the process whose result would be to transition Syria from family rule to rule of law. That with which the president and his aides wrestle is the reality that there is only one thing that might change the calculation of the man and the family now engaged in Syria’s destruction: the certainty of military defeat. Even that certainty may not suffice to induce the regime to do the decent thing. Yet its absence will render the president’s objective utterly unattainable, even if Moscow elects at long last to respect its own signature on the Geneva communiqué. In the end there is no practical difference between seeking a negotiated political transition for Syria and facilitating the regime’s military defeat. The Obama administration can avoid doing the latter only by abandoning the former.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State.

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