When Assad Is the Alternative to Assad

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A migrant man holds his sleeping child as migrants and refugees queue to enter a registration camp near Gevgelija, Macedonia, on October 29, 2015. Credit: AFP

The Vienna conference that convened on Thursday and Friday to explore possible (and impossible) solutions to the crisis in Syria broke up after seven hours, apparently without any new approaches or solutions. For the six million Syrians who have been uprooted from their homes, and the four million refugees seeking shelter from the harsh winter conditions that have already arrived, there was nothing new in the meeting’s concluding statement. Neither they nor their representatives attended the conference. Syrian rebels and representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad were not present, either. In their absence, and absent their consent, it is doubtful any kind of agreement can be reached.

But the conference should not be dismissed as just another futile forum full of empty words. The major new development was that, for the first time – and with American and Saudi consent – Iran participated and was seen as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. That’s a major change both in the policy of the United States – which had rejected Iranian participation at two prior conferences in Geneva in 2012 and 2014 – and the policy of Iran, whose supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had repeatedly declared that there would be no dialogue with the Americans other than on the nuclear issue.

Iran’s bitter rival, Saudi Arabia, also shifted its position and, for the first time, Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers sat at the same negotiating table on the Syrian issue. And the legitimization that Iran has enjoyed since the international agreement on its nuclear program has not been ignored by the other Arab countries – including Egypt and the Gulf states – which did not oppose Iranian participation. This precedent could also make Iran a partner in addressing other regional conflicts, such as the crisis in Yemen. It is already involved in the war against Islamic State.

The Vienna gathering also laid the foundations for a new authoritative source for a solution to the Syrian crisis that no longer sanctifies the traditional division among rivals – which had Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime facing off against the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Syrian rebels.

The new, international setup will attempt first to shape agreed-upon principles among countries other than Syria, while Assad and the Syrian rebels will only be secondary players at any stage and be required to abide by an international consensus. The effort to find an international compromise is already reflected in the absence of any reference to Assad in the final Vienna declaration, other than noting that the country’s institutions will remain in place (which is subject to interpretation). It is also reflected in the absence of a timetable for Assad’s removal from power.

The proposal to have Assad out of office within six months is now off the table. And, under Iranian pressure, the parties also refrained from demanding that Assad not be part of a transitional government or run for president in future elections – on which there is international agreement but no timeline.

Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Baodong (2nd L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif (2nd R) at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, October 30, 2015. Credit: Reuters

In the absence of a consensus about Assad’s status or his participation in any diplomatic process, the parties intend to defer discussion of such questions and try to find other areas of agreement; these will be considered in the next two weeks. One of the key issues that UN envoy Staffan de Mistura faces is considering how to limit the players in any transitional government in Syria, a task that is complicated and full of pitfalls. That’s because some of the militias in Syria are considered terrorist organizations by the West, but are waging a fierce fight against ISIS. Others, meanwhile, including militias supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are considered terrorists by the Russians.

Russia and Iran will try to expand the list of rebel groups that the United Nations considers terrorist organizations, while the United States and the Saudis will be forced to fight for the legitimacy of some of them.

It should be noted that the declaration out of Vienna lacks any mention of a cease-fire, the establishment of secure areas for refugees, or a call on the Assad regime to refrain from bombing civilian targets with barrel bombs.

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