The rumor mill about Bashar Assad’s political future shifted into high gear on Thursday when a French source who had spoken with Arab media people said that Iran was willing to “set aside” discussion about whether the Syrian president should remain in office in order to reach a diplomatic solution.
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If that report is true, this is the first time that Iran has expressed willingness to compromise on a topic that it had held as an inviolable in any political talks about Syria.
It is hard to understand what the French source meant by “set aside.” Does Iran seek to remove Assad from power, or is it going to focus first on a broader political solution, thus paving the way for diplomatic accords that could reduce the scope of Assad’s powers as president?
It is likely that last Tuesday’s report in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir about a Iranian-Russian agreement on Syria could dissipate some of the fog spread by the French source. According to this report, Assad will agree to give up some of his powers; a government will be formed in Damascus (in April) that will be headed by Moaz al-Khatib, former leader of the coalition of Syrian opposition groups, and that will mostly include members from the opposition; and the defense portfolio will be given to Manaf Tlass, son of former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, who was very close to both Hafez and Bashar Assad.
It is also possible that Bashar Assad will keep the defense portfolio and retain control over the three major intelligence agencies and the Syrian Air Force.
These reports emerged after a series of visits by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to Istanbul, where he met with Syrian opposition leaders and also with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. At the same time, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari visited Iran, where they met with representatives from Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — all this, it seems, so as to coordinate positions before presentation of the joint Russian-Iranian plan.
After a month in which it has been drafting a new scheme that will spearhead diplomatic talks between opposition leaders and the regime in Syria, Russia has already received Khatib’s agreement to attend the summit meeting slated to take place in Moscow next year. Assad himself is expected to go to Moscow for talks beforehand, sometime after January 1.
The Russian initiative seems to be not just a new political game in terms of Syria, but the only game. That may also be the reason it is expected to be more practical than previous efforts, particularly the American ones that resulted in two failed conferences in Geneva after which the fighting in Syria only intensified, particularly when Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, entered the fray and conquered large sections of Iraq.
For its part, the Syrian opposition in exile, led by Ahmad Jarba, has already come out against the Russian initiative, portraying it as a new trick that enemies of the Syrian people are employing to keep Assad in power. But this opposition is steadily losing its relevance — not only because it could not unify its ranks or garner control over all opposition troops fighting on the ground, but also because of its failed efforts to obtain high-quality arms and significant financial assistance.
America's empty bag of tricks
Washington’s political bag of tricks is also devoid of substance. Secretary of State John Kerry devoted most of his address at the Saban Forum in Washington last week to laying out possible methods of combating ISIS.
Senior officials in the Obama administration describe in painstaking detail how and where the Americans are attacking ISIS targets in Iraq, who the members of the coalition are, and how many foreign ministers attended the conference Kerry organized in Brussels two weeks ago. But when they are asked about Syria, they pull out the well-known slogan that “Assad has lost his legitimacy, so he cannot keep on ruling in Syria.”
None of these officials has any idea, of course, of how to explain that statement in light of the United States’ efforts to avoid attacking targets of the Syrian regime.
In short, Washington, which is disappointed in the Syrian opposition and does not trust the Syrian “moderate groups” whose training it funds, also hopes for some Russian or Russian-Iranian formula that will square the circle. The diplomatic dead-end is in need of a ray of light, even one from a match head. The plan by Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for the Syrian crisis, to bring about a cease-fire at least in the besieged city of Aleppo in hopes that it will be a model for similar truces in other regions, is exactly that.
But the gap between that hope and reality is wide indeed. The rebels are willing to agree to a cease-fire as long as it includes the border crossing with Turkey. Syria is still “reviewing the proposal,” which it has been doing since October. It seems that Assad has no reason to hurry. Pressure on Aleppo is a good bargaining chip for him before his meetings in Russia. Moreover, Washington, which has used up most of its pressure on Syria — except direct military action — is in no rush either.
Now we can only wait patiently for the next report of casualties and the pleas for help from the refugees, who are spending their fourth winter suffering due to the ongoing hostilities.