One week ago, there was a sense of cautious optimism about an upcoming breakthrough in the Syrian crisis. Many were speculating about a US-Russian agreement on Syria based on the Geneva Plan of 2011, which outlines a political roadmap for the transition.
President Bashar al-Assad’s Jan. 6 speech at the Damascus Opera House outlined the limits of far he was willing to go in pursuing a political settlement. His ceiling, by all accounts, was very low.
First, he called for a mutual ceasefire, along with a halt to the flow of arms to Syrian rebels. He said that a national dialogue would then start, from which a new constitution and new cabinet might emerge. He completely bypassed any talk of presidential elections or a transition period as explicitly outlined at Geneva.
Rather than sound conciliatory, as some had wrongly expected, he delivered a fiery battle speech, which signaled that this was not a man preparing to step down anytime soon. As rebels make advances around the capital city of Damascus, where does all of this fit into a possible political solution to the Syrian crisis?
The joint Arab League and UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, recently wrapped up a visit to Damascus, where he met with the Syrian president and members of the Syrian opposition. Brahimi’s proposed first step was to create a “transition government,” composed of independents, figures from the regime, and opposition members, “with full powers” to supervise a transition period.
According to the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, each group would receive one-third, or 10 seats, in Syria’s 30-member cabinet. The newspaper singled out Haitham Manaa, the prominent Paris-based human rights lawyer, as a candidate for the premiership, which is not too far from what the regime is thinking.
Manaa, who has been at daggers end with the Baath party for three decades, has been subjected to harsh character attacks by several groups in the opposition, mainly because the pro-regime media sees him as a political moderate and showers him with praise morning, evening and night.
It is doubtful, however, that the opposition itself would accept him as premier, or that he would accept being another Adel Safar or Wael Halaki, the two men who rotated the Syrian premiership since outbreak of the revolt in March 2011. The cabinet would theoretically carry Assad’s signature, but it would remove legislative powers from him the minute it is created, according to Brahimi.
Assad, however, made it clear on Jan. 6 that the first step would have to be a mutual ceasefire, not a new government. Brahimi has said that the new government would appoint a constitutional assembly to draft a new charter for Syria; in theory, this new constitution would dilute the president’s powers and empower parliament and the premiership at the president’s expense, similar to how Syria operated in 1932-1947.
Additionally, one proposal that has been floated is to create a military council under the new cabinet’s authority, which would reincorporate defected officers and Free Syrian Army members into the Syrian Army. Assad would transfer his military powers to this military council, and would stay on as a ceremonial head of state. In other words, a “phased” transfer of presidential powers would take place, starting on the executive and legislative level, followed by the military level. A plan like this is, of course, unacceptable to the Syrian regime.
Once a military council and new government are ready, a phased ceasefire would take place, city by city and town by town. This plan was originally the brainchild of the Chinese government, a staunch ally of Assad. It sounds logical, as an all-at-once ceasefire would be difficult or impossible given the lawlessness and chaos across the country.
For the ceasefire to happen, however, international peacekeeping forces would have to be stationed in Syria to oversee the peace, to guard Syria’s chemical arsenal and to protect the Alawite minority, of which Assad is a member, against rebel-led revenge attacks.
The new government, which would be headed by a member of the opposition, would set a date by which parliament would decide whether Syria's new political system would be parliamentary or presidential.
Brahimi has not gone into detail on whether Assad could run for office in subsequent elections, although Assad and his backers in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran insist that it is his constitutional right to do so. His opponents in the newly created Syrian National Coalition insist that no political process will ever work if Assad is part of the transition.
Any presidential and parliamentary elections will have to be under the watchful eye of the United Nations and respected international monitors like the Carter Center. All of this will likely be on the table when US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in mid-January 2013. Following that, a “Geneva II” conference will happen, followed by a UN resolution enforcing its outcomes on all parties under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter.
The regime has in theory agreed to international peacekeepers and to the national unity cabinet. It has also agreed to the new constitution, but failed to discuss the key trump card — presidential elections, and when they will happen, under whose supervision, and who gets to run for them.
It would be madness to think that a political solution will work in Syria if it is not comprehensive, just, immediate and bold. Unless those elections happen in 2013, Syria is destined for a prolonged and ugly civil war that will continue to eat away at the nation.
Sami Moubayed is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and author of Syria and the USA. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of www.syrianhistory.com, the first and only online museum of modern Syrian history.