Syrian Political Transition: Are the Rules Being Bent?

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura recently released a “Mediator’s Summary of the 13-17 April Round of UN Facilitated Intra-Syrian Talks.” It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking document. It appropriately asks far more questions than it answers about political transition in Syria. Even as a regime-Russian military offensive focusing on Aleppo—one targeting civilians and medical facilities in particular—undermines the prospect for productive peace talks, the issues raised by de Mistura merit serious thinking. One question he raises has potentially troubling implications: “How power is to be exercised in practice by the transitional governance, including in relation to the presidency…” The question itself raises another: are the basic rules of the game agreed in Geneva in June 2012 being altered in favor of those who have no interest at all in political transition?

Indeed, the Special Envoy took care to cite UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the 2012 Geneva Communique when stipulating that “a sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria includes the establishment of an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers, which shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent while ensuring continuity of governmental institutions.” De Mistura’s Mediator’s Summary reflected on talks he has conducted with regime representatives, the opposition, and others. He found commonalities between the various actors (transitional governance must replace “present governance arrangements,” a new constitution is required, “human rights and fundamental freedoms must be guaranteed during the transition”). Mainly, however, he identified issues that would require serious and sustained effort to resolve.

In all of Staffan de Mistura’s mediating the ‘800-pound gorilla’ lurking in the room is the issue of Bashar al-Assad’s role—if any—in Syria’s transition from corrupt and brutal family rule to the promised land of pluralistic democracy. Assad’s delegation to the Geneva talks has insisted that he is untouchable: that the “mechanism” for a transitional governing body should be “the establishment of a Broad-Based National Unity Government,” one that would include “members of the government, opposition, independents, and others…”

The problem with the national unity government (prime minister and cabinet of ministers) approach is its inability to reconcile the “full executive power” mandate assigned to the transitional governing body by the 2012 Geneva Communique with the existing Syrian Constitution, which vests all meaningful executive power in the presidency. The “government,” such as it is, is an order-taking body. Assad and his negotiators have cynically upheld the supremacy of the constitution (which, among other things, bans torture) over anything agreed on by the permanent five members of the UN Security Council nearly four years ago in Geneva. To make “transitional governing body” synonymous with “national unity government” would be to gut to the 2012 Geneva Communique and the Security Council Resolution endorsing it. Such a government would exercise no executive power. All of it—per the existing ersatz constitution—would remain in the hands of Bashar al-Assad.

This is why the wording of the first point in de Mistura’s Annex (“Fundamental Issues for a Viable Transition”) is potentially troublesome. By asking how transitional governance would exercise power “in relation to the presidency,” the implication is that “the presidency” would have some kind of ongoing existence in the same political universe as “transitional governance.” Does this wording reflect acceptance by the Special Envoy of the proposition that “the presidency”—meaning the incumbent president—would somehow be present during Syria’s political transition? Does it indicate an inclination to accept the “national unity government” approach and to limit the negotiation itself to the composition of a cabinet and the ways and means of altering the existing 100 percent allocation of executive power to the presidency? Does de Mistura’s formulation indicate that Washington has, at long last, yielded to Moscow’s revisionist interpretation of the June 30, 2012 Final Communique? By the fall of 2012 Russia was claiming that the transitional governing body would not overshadow Assad and his security services.

De Mistura himself floated an idea calling on Assad to name three vice presidents agreed upon by the negotiating parties and to devolve his executive powers to them. This particular clay pigeon did not fly for long. The problem is Assad, his family, and his entourage of enforcers: they have no intention of devolving anything or being transitioned anywhere; and the opposition—fearing the destructive potential of anything resembling the Yemeni Ali Abdullah Saleh model—simply wants the regime gone from Syria.

That which the regime and its external allies understand is that military facts on the ground will ultimately answer the question of Assad’s endurance. The United States has loudly and consistently denied the relevance of military conditions to diplomatic outcomes. This remarkable attempt to repeal the physics of basic statecraft stems in large measure from certitude that ‘there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis,’ itself a mantra designed to justify the absence of any kinetic response whatsoever to a campaign of mass homicide that has, among other things, inflicted a politically destructive migrant crisis on Western European allies.

Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime are indeed seeking to accomplish military victory, which they would define as preserving the regime in power in a least a significant part of Syria. The Mediator’s Summary suggests that the diplomatic reaction to the military campaign may be one of bending the interpretation of the Geneva 2012 terms of reference in the direction of Russian revisionism, perhaps in the hope that Russia and Iran will abandon their military campaign and settle for an ‘Assad lite’ transitional governing arrangement: one that could, if not based on mutual consent, very well perpetuate the collective punishment survival strategy of the regime.

The view here is that concessions of this nature run the risk of radiating weakness and encouraging the kind of behavior we see today, with civilian medical facilities and vegetable markets being bombed with impunity by regime aircraft. Geneva 2012 was clear: a transitional governing body would be created through negotiations featuring mutual consent, and once created it would exercise full executive power. There was no reference to Assad and no reference to the Syrian presidency or Syria’s vacuous constitution. The opposition could veto regime preferences for the transitional governing body. The regime could veto opposition nominees. The transitional governing body would become Syria’s interim ruler, preserving where it could existing departments and agencies of government.

Altering the terms of reference to appease Russian revisionist interpretations would make sense were there solid, humane, Assad-free transition understandings in place. But if the West is going to stand to the side while Assad and his allies do their worst militarily—concentrating, as they always do, on civilians—then bending on the rules of the game accomplishes nothing. As a mediator Staffan de Mistura is trying his best to find and create common ground. Still, he needs to hold firm to the basic terms of reference that govern his mission even if the West gives him nothing with which to work.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Smoke rises after airstrikes on the rebel-held al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria April 29, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail