Future of Assad stumbling block in Geneva talks but Russia still calling the shots on Syria

Sunday 03/12/2017
Nearly collapsed. UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura briefs the media in Geneva, on November 28. (AP)

Beirut- Concerns over an early col­lapse in the eighth round of the Syrian peace talks proved well founded, with the Syrian govern­ment delegation walking out De­cember 1 after the opposition in­sisted on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s departure from office. It was not immediately clear if they would return after the weekend break.
However, efforts at unifying Syr­ia’s belligerents have highlighted the differences among them, while diplomatic moves by Moscow ap­pear to be determining Syria’s still uncertain future.
The Geneva talks, which aimed to bring members of the Syrian government delegation face-to-face with the newly elected and unified Syrian opposition, nearly fell apart early on when the Damas­cus delegation failed to show for the November 28 opening session. The Syrian government had threat­ened to boycott the talks over what it considered the hard-line conclu­sions of the earlier Syrian opposi­tion conference in Riyadh. How­ever, it seems it was convinced to attend at the last minute by its Rus­sian allies.
Outside Assad’s future, the two sides were supposed to discuss three major topics: general prin­ciples of the political endgame, a new constitution and steps for elec­tions without specifying whether they would be presidential or parliamentary.
As in past discussions, Assad’s future proved to be the source of division. The government delega­tion said it would only continue to take part in talks if the topic of Assad’s removal was stricken from the negotiating table, reminding attendees of the Syrian opposi­tion’s prior commitment to attend­ing talks “with no preconditions.”
While Assad’s removal was men­tioned as a goal, rather than a pre­condition of the talks, that clearly was not enough for Moscow, Teh­ran and Damascus, which wanted it scrapped for the direct talks to proceed.
To that end, the precise seman­tics of the phrase “transition gov­ernment” proved to be the subject of dispute, with the regime and its allies arguing that it refers to the body responsible for taking Syria from one constitution to another and from war to peace — power-sharing at best but not regime change.
Many in the opposition, how­ever, want a transitional govern­ment body that would assume full presidential powers from Assad, claiming that this is what the in­ternational community had agreed upon in Geneva in 2012. Russian and Iranian diplomats scoff at the suggestion, claiming that Geneva 2012 is a thing of the past, arguing that no Syrians were present at that conference and that its resolutions were made in very different times.
Beyond Geneva, much of the direction of the Syrian situation appears to be being shaped in Moscow. At their recent meeting in Vietnam, US President Don­ald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin laid the ground­work for a new chapter of under­standing over Syria, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which makes no mention of As­sad’s departure. They spoke of constitutional reforms rather than a new charter, followed by elec­tions, acknowledging the Syrian president’s commitment to the po­litical process.
This was music to the ears of re­gime officials in Damascus, who saw it as an ultimate surrender by the Americans to Putin’s vision of the Syrian endgame. Among Syr­ian officials, there is no intention of having presidential elections be­fore 2021, when Assad’s third term in office would naturally expire, and they insist he is entitled to run for a fourth term, which would end in 2028.

The Riyadh-based opposition is furious with those dictates, claim­ing they are being muscled into surrendering by former allies such as Turkey and the United States, which appear to have abandoned hopes of regime change. Even the opposition’s patrons in Qatar, who were previously active in trying to bring down Assad, have stepped back from demanding his ouster, presumably being too busy with their own quarrels with Saudi Ara­bia.
At the recent Riyadh confer­ence, all Qatar-backed opposition figures were squeezed out of both the High Negotiations Commit­tee (HNC) and the Syrian National Coalition. So, too, were figures who insisted on Assad’s departure as a precondition for the transition period, such as former Prime Min­ister Riyad Hijab and ex-Culture Minister Riyad Naasan Agha.

Yet if they are forced to drop the goal of Assad’s departure from their agenda, with all precondi­tions as well, then it is likely that many in the newly elected central committee of the HNC will resign, like their predecessors.
Again, this would be warmly welcomed by Moscow, ahead of its mid-January talks. Ultimately, it wants to inject the opposition delegation to both Sochi and Ge­neva with Damascus-based oppo­sition figures, who are generally perceived — at least by the Saudi-backed bloc — to be either regime created or regime friendly, poten­tially adding complications to a confusing process.