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Syria's temporary solution

As preparations for the Geneva II Syria conference stall, some suggest that a temporary solution could be in the works, aimed at keeping President Bashar al-Assad in office, but without elections.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad answers journalists after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, December 9, 2010. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXVKF9

A senior Lebanese official who is involved in the Lebanese-Syrian file, the ongoing discussions on holding the Geneva II Conference, and the possibility of Beirut being invited to attend, told Al-Monitor that it is obvious that the concerned international powers are inclined to delay the conference date and wait, in order to accomplish a number of preliminary goals. He explained that the major powers involved in the Syrian events clearly agree on not rushing to hold the conference.

With regard to the Syrian authorities, it is clear that it is to their advantage to save additional time before they sit down at the negotiating table. The authorities are taking the opportunity to invest in this time militarily by expanding their control on the ground. It is worth noting that in the coming period, there are two prospects for the Syrian regime army at this level: The first is a battle for Qalamoun, northwest of Damascus, which would close the Syrian armed opposition’s last hold on the Lebanese border. The second would be a battle to corner the insurgents in Aleppo, after the Syrian army gained control over the town of Safira a few days ago. The latter is considered a strategic point in advancing toward the second-largest Syrian city.

Moreover, the political tendencies of concerned nations are providing the Syrian authorities with another advantage in delaying the Geneva II conference. This is particularly true since Qatar changed course and sent its second message to Damascus two weeks ago, via Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director-general of Lebanese General Security, following the first message sent via Abbas Zaki, a Palestinian Authority minister. The most important message from Doha to Damascus is being broadcast live, through the “media repositioning” of Al Jazeera. The Qatari channel has gone from being a satellite channel hostile to the Syrian authorities, into a distant observer covering — with noticeable objectivity — the developments that are in favor of the regime army on the ground. This Qatari change of course is also directly connected to the developments on the ground, given that the consequences of the halted Qatari support to some Syrian armed groups may be rapidly seen on the demarcation lines and military fronts.

On the other hand, it seems obvious that Saudi Arabia would also prefer to delay the Geneva II conference. The kingdom probably considers that the current balance of power, both militarily and politically, is not in its favor and does not enable its affiliate Syrian opposition forces to make any gains from negotiating at present. The best evidence is that these opposition groups have failed so far to agree on a unified delegation, or even a unified position regarding the principle of negotiating with the regime. The rulers of Riyadh may also think that saving time is in their interest, to improve the negotiation conditions. This would be done by scoring points on the ground in Syria, persuading Washington to show greater firmness in its position, or by persuading Moscow to soften its stance. Although these goals are unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future, it is still obvious that the Saudis are not enthusiastic about holding the conference at present.

However, the most prominent information revealed by the Lebanese official to Al-Monitor was that Washington and Moscow have actually started to look into the political prospects for the conference on the Syrian settlement, and have failed to reach any agreement or any clear vision for a solution. Both capitals realize that, at the conference, they will be facing a clear and tangible milestone, represented by the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s presidential term in June 2014. This leads to a pivotal challenge for both sides. Moscow affirms and reiterates that it considers this issue an internal Syrian affair that must be decided by the Syrians themselves, which implies its support for the nomination of Assad for a third presidential term. Washington, however, reiterates its refusal that Assad remain in power.

The Lebanese official noted that an attempt at achieving a temporary settlement between the two positions has begun to be engineered at this level. It is a settlement based on the hidden loophole that the Syrians included in the new constitution passed on Feb. 15, 2012. In the new constitution, the second paragraph of Article 87 stipulates that “if the term of the President of the Republic ends and no new president is elected, the existing President of the Republic continues to exercise his duties until the new president is elected.” This means that Assad can fill his position temporarily, without the need to be re-elected. Some are marketing this idea among the concerned parties as an available way out to save additional time, if necessary, according to the same Lebanese official.

There are two things worth noting: First, some Syrians have thus far refused this way out, and consider it to detract from Assad’s legitimacy. Second, if the concerned parties come to an agreement on this temporary solution, what would be the explanation for not holding elections? Will it be attributed to the increasing conflict on the ground, in a way that multiple objectives of delaying the Geneva II Conference are achieved at the same time, politically and militarily?

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