News that Iran may submit a Syria peace plan to the United Nations combined with ongoing Syria-related talks between Moscow and Washington brings to the fore the perennial question of Bashar al-Assad, still recognized by the West as presiding over a heap of physical and political wreckage known as the Syrian Arab Republic. Could Assad and his regime—meaning the extended family and his military/intelligence/police chieftains—play a leadership role in a transitional governing body that restores security, removes obstacles to humanitarian assistance, and sets Syria on a path to reconstruction, reconciliation, and reform? Syrians must provide the answer to this question: no one else is qualified to answer it.
The exclusive right of Syrians to determine the political arrangements that would move the country from war and chaos to peace and inclusivity was recognized explicitly by the Geneva Final Communique of June 30, 2012. In the weeks leading up to the agreement, there had been much P5 discussion in Geneva of Assad’s political future.
French, British, and US diplomats argued for the explicit exclusion of Assad from Syria’s political transition. Russia and China dismissed the argument because it preempted a Syrian decision. Western representatives then suggested a clause that would have excluded from a transitional governing body anyone “with blood on his hands.” The Russian reply was instructive: “No. Everyone will know we are referring to Assad.” The agreed formulation wound up where it probably should have begun: a transitional governing body exercising full executive power to be formed by all-Syrian negotiations—government and opposition—based on mutual consent (meaning mutual veto).
Some key players—reportedly even United Nations Special Envoy Steffan de Mistura—think that the formula offered by the Geneva Final Communique is too ambiguous to be of use. This is wrong. Although the Communique did not get into the details of who exactly would negotiate or how the talks would proceed, the formula itself was a model of clarity. To the extent that ambiguity arose, it was because of misrepresentations subsequently offered by both Washington and Moscow.
The ink was barely dry on the Communique when Washington began to proclaim that it amounted to a P5 endorsement of President Barack Obama’s August 2011 call on Bashar al-Assad to step aside. In fact, the name “Assad” appears nowhere in the Communique. It may have been logical to assume that no Syrian opposition delegation would ever give its consent to an Assad regime role in a transitional governing body. Yet the Geneva Final Communique explicitly left the matter open and entirely in the hands of Syrians.
Moscow’s misrepresentation was even more corrosive. It claimed that the package deal incorporating mutual consent, full executive power, and transitional governing body did not extend to the Syrian presidency or to the security services. Rather, what Russia claimed to envision was a national unity government—a cabinet of ministers including some opposition figures—over which Assad would preside from the presidential palace.
Neither Washington nor Moscow acquitted itself well in the summer of 2012 with respect to the Geneva Final Communique. The Obama administration wanted to assure the Syrian opposition that its diplomacy in Geneva had placed Assad in the political past tense. Russia wanted to assure Assad it had conceded nothing of value at Geneva and was fully behind him. The failure of both sides to adhere to what was agreed has undermined the efforts of three United Nations special envoys: Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and now Steffan de Mistura. Attempts to convene opposition and regime negotiators in Geneva without first closing this fissure have produced diplomatic disasters.
Can Tehran succeed where Washington and Moscow have failed? Can Iran do better than the P5 has done in facilitating a process whereby Syrians determine the terms under which peace and security will be established in non-ISIL Syria?
Put aside the fact that Iran had no role in formulating the Geneva Final Communique and, therefore, has no interest in its implementation. Perhaps Tehran has another formula in mind. It is entitled to a hearing. That which Tehran proposes, however, should be subjected to the same standard the literal language of Geneva Communique achieved: transitional governing arrangements for the exercise of full executive power to be arrived at entirely by Syrians based on mutual consent.
This will be problematic for Iran. It will not want to risk the passing of the Assad regime unless a Syrian government able and willing to do as Tehran pleases with respect to Iranian-orchestrated Syrian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon replaces it. Track two discussions with informed Iranians suggest that Tehran doubts that any replacement can replicate the reliability of the genuine article: Bashar al-Assad. Any Iranian peace proposal will likely posit an extended transitional role for the regime, thereby preempting the voices of Syrians. Calling for general elections under current conditions—with barrel bombs falling, starvation sieges in place, and much of the country under Islamic State (ISIL, or ISIS) military control—would be the emptiest of proposals.
Were the issue of the regime’s role in transitional governing arrangements truly left to Syrians to decide, ideally the answers to a handful of questions would be dispositive: Given the events of the past fifty-three months, does Bashar al-Assad have the requisite credibility and skill to play a central role in reconstruction, reconciliation, and reform? Has he demonstrated the ability to reach out to adversaries and to protect the defenseless? Has he cooperated fully with United Nations efforts to seek a political settlement and expedite humanitarian assistance to needy Syrians? Can he be the kind of unifying figure who can persuade refugees to return and rally the country against the barbarity represented by ISIL?
The future of Bashar al-Assad and his regime ought to be determined exclusively by Syrians. No doubt, the question of who or what follows Bashar is interesting. Even more interesting is the question of how the views of unarmed Syrian local leaders and civil society activists will weigh on what comes next.
The near-term question, however, centers on transitional arrangements. Those in Tehran who insist on overriding a Syrian decision on the regime’s future might well consider whether a continuing role for Bashar will stabilize matters—even within an Alawite community sacrificing its sons for the ruling family—or pump gasoline onto a raging fire. Syrians should decide. Tehran need only decide whether its own Hezbollah-related needs trump the needs of 23 million Syrians. If it decides Syrians come first, a 180-degree policy reversal will be forthcoming.
Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.