Coming on the heels of an agreement by the world powers to establish a transitional national unity government to end the now 16-month-old Syrian crisis, leaving the door open for Syria’s president to be part of the new government, the Syrian opposition rejected any notion of sharing power in a transition with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, adding that the new government could only work if Assad and his cronies are excluded.
The concept of a transitional national unity government to which the parties agreed at a meeting in Geneva last Saturday would include the Syrian opposition, but in no way exclude people from the incumbent administration, upon Russia’s insistence. The US has raised objections to Russia’s move. The divisions among the world powers left the question open as to whether Assad might play a role in the transition.
The revolt in Syria has dragged on for far longer than any other Arab Spring uprising, in part because of Assad’s unwillingness to meet the demands of the Syrian people but also because of rifts among the world powers.
While the world powers were unclear on the fate of Assad and the future of the political transition in Syria, Syrian opposition groups made it very clear that a transitional government which includes Assad would fail.
“Any transition plan that allows the Assad regime to play a role is bound to fail,” Bassma Kodmani, a Paris-based spokesperson for Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), told Sunday’s Zaman.
Kodmani stated that there was no possibility that the opposition would join such a transitional national unity government as there was no clear indication that Assad would stop the killings and that his regime would end. “This is the point that the opposition is concerned about. A plan including Assad will be unacceptable in the eyes of the Syrian people. I think such a plan will have difficulties in finding credible partners if the Assad regime is not clearly out of the picture. In short, Assad must not play a role in the transitional government; he must be out of the picture,” said Kodmani.
The meeting in Geneva was convened on the initiative of joint UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, and gathered five permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, to discuss the Syrian crisis.
A transition government without Assad
Kodmani stated that the national transitional government was a possibility but that the key to success was a government without Assad. “A transitional government is not a problem. The problem is that Assad and the group of people involved in his brutal suppression remain in power,” said Kodmani.
The creation of a transitional national unity government in Syria was agreed at the Geneva meeting, but at Russia’s insistence the compromise agreement left the door open to the Syrian president being part of any interim administration.
Russia and China have used their veto power twice in the UN Security Council to shield Syria from harsher international sanctions, arguing firmly against a military intervention.
Fawaz Tello, a prominent dissident who resigned from the SNC, Syria’s main opposition umbrella group in exile, last May, told Sunday’s Zaman that the decision concerning a transition government was a solution without arms or legs. “The national transition government decision leaves the doors open without any conditions and pre steps. The transitional government should be decided on after some steps are taken. At the Geneva meeting, the transitional government was decided on but without referring to how to topple the Assad regime. It is clear that Assad cannot take part in this government. Additionally, there was no reference to the conditions for the transitional government,” said Tello.
Syrian opposition groups last Sunday rejected a UN-brokered peace plan for a political transition in Syria, calling it a waste of time and vowing not to negotiate with Assad or members of his murderous regime.
“The UN initiative is very tricky. It keeps the door open for everything, and they placed the two sides, the regime and the opposition, on the same level,” said Tello.
After the meeting, the United States and Russia contradicted each other over what that meant for Assad, who has ruled Syria for 11 years since succeeding his father, Hafez al-Assad. The international community has condemned Assad over the ferocity of his crackdown on the uprising against him.
“This unclear decision is very dangerous for the Syrian people as well as the Syrian opposition. The Syrian people cannot accept a decision that does not promise to topple Assad,” said Tello, adding that the international powers are only speaking about a peaceful transition and no other option.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was “delighted” with the result. The key point was that the deal did not attempt to impose a process on Syria, he said. It did not imply at all that Assad should step down as there were no preconditions excluding any group from the proposed national unity government, Lavrov added.
The US backed away from insisting that the plan should explicitly call for Assad to have no role in a new Syrian government, hoping the concession would encourage Russia to put greater pressure on its longtime ally to end the violent crackdown that the opposition says has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it sent a clear message to Assad that he must quit. “Assad will still have to go,” Clinton told reporters. “What we have done here is to strip away the fiction that he and those with blood on their hands can stay in power.”
Peace envoy Annan said after the talks that the government should include members of Assad’s administration and the Syrian opposition and that it should arrange free elections.
The final communiqué said the transitional government should be formed “on the basis of mutual consent.” However, Annan failed to bridge differences between the West and Russia -- backed by China -- on whether Syrian President Assad must resign.
‘First step’ toward the resolution of the crisis in Syria
Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the Middle East from Abant İzzet Baysal University, told Sunday’s Zaman that the Geneva meeting was evidence of the weakness of the West when it comes to the Syrian crisis. “The Geneva meeting produced no phrase stating that Assad had lost his legitimacy. In the meeting, seeking to avoid a conflict in the region, the West tried to formulate a plan that suited both Russia and Syria,” Ayhan said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said Assad should play no part in a transitional government, but suggested that the Syrian opposition would do well to accept Annan’s internationally endorsed proposal, adding that the proposal was “an important first step” toward the resolution of the crisis in Syria.
“I believe that the transitional government is the best plan for Syria and the Syrian people, but at this stage the plan cannot be applied. I think the strategy and the principles used at the Geneva meeting were correct, but these principles cannot be applied at this time,” Ayhan said.
“The most basic solution for the Syrian crisis is to form a transitional government which represents all of Syria’s people. It is not correct to ask for the toppling of the Assad regime because this regime also has a base that should be taken into account by the opposition. But the opposition also has a base and the regime in turn should take this into account. Therefore, the best solution is to establish a transitional government,” said Ayhan.
Davutoğlu added that Annan’s role as mediator means the opposition will not have to negotiate with Assad under the transition plan.
“What I am afraid of is that the Syrian opposition and the Syrian people will be pressured to accept this unclear decision. The Syrian people have their own vision and that vision should be followed. But the great powers are trying to push their own vision. I believe that this decision was planned,” said Tello, adding that the acceptance of the decision by the opposition means crossing red lines drawn by the opposition.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition met in Cairo last Monday to discuss a new international plan for a transitional government. The opposition said it would not discuss forming a government-in-exile at the talks but would work on a single vision.
Arab states and Turkey urged Syria’s divided opposition to unite and form a credible alternative to Assad’s government, but rifts swiftly emerged at the talks in Cairo.
Diplomats and officials taking part in the talks, which are being boycotted by the Free Syrian Army, the group leading the armed struggle against Assad’s forces, said they did not expect a major agreement to emerge but hoped for some progress.
“We don’t expect the opposition will unite today after what we have seen in past meetings; they are always fighting behind closed doors,” said one Arab League source to the press. “But there is always a chance that things could change for the better.”
One Arab League diplomat said the Syrian opposition’s failure to unite strengthened Assad’s position and made it more difficult for the world to respond, contrasting the way opponents of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi had closed ranks.
It was the first time the Arab League has hosted a meeting of the Syrian opposition. There was broad participation by the Syrian opposition at the meeting.
The Cairo meeting is considered an important one for discussing the options for a transitional government.