For the first time since the Syrian conflict erupted, a political solution under UN auspices is beginning to look like a real possibility. There's still a long way to go, of course, but the Security Council's unanimous adoption of a binding resolution on dismantling Syria's chemical weapons has opened the way for renewed diplomatic efforts.
Yesterday's resolution (full text here) includes two paragraphs (16 and 17) stating that the Security Council ...
"Endorses fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012 (Annex II), which sets out a number of key steps beginning with the establishment of a transitional governing body [for Syria] exercising full executive powers, which could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.
"Calls for the convening, as soon as possible, of an international conference on Syria to implement the Geneva Communiqué, and calls upon all Syrian parties to engage seriously and constructively at the Geneva Conference on Syria, and underscores that they should be fully representative of the Syrian people and committed to the implementation of the Geneva Communiqué and to the achievement of stability and reconciliation."
The Geneva process stalled last year because, apart from the problem of determining exactly who comprises "the opposition", there were differences over what to do about President Assad.
The Syrian rebels insist Assad must go – his overthrow, after all, is what they have been fighting for all this time. The rebels also fear that if Assad and his immediate clique were allowed to remain, even as part of a power-sharing government, they would immediately begin retrenching themselves.
The language of the Geneva communiqué (now also incorporated into the Security Council resolution) fudged this issue with talk of establishing "a transitional governing body" which "could include" members of the present Syrian government, thus leaving open the question of whether Assad might or might not be part of it.
At the time Russia was unwilling to contemplate Assad's departure and, at the rhetorical level, its position hasn't changed – as we have recently seen by with its absurd attempts to blame rebels for the August 21 chemical attacks.
Below the surface, though, Russia's position may be shifting. Russia, along with many others, seems genuinely worried about the growth of jihadist elements among the Syrian rebels and it's clear that the longer the conflict continues the more difficult this will be to deal with.
The question now is whether Russia has become sufficiently worried about this to be willing to sacrifice Assad.
On September 19 the Guardian reported an interview with Qadri Jamil, Syria's deputy prime minister, and quoted him as saying that "neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side". Along with hinting about a ceasefire, he also reportedly said:
"Let nobody have any fear that the regime in its present form will continue. For all practical purposes the regime in its previous form has ended."
Jamil later complained that part of his remarks had been mis-reported, particularly on the question of a ceasefire. People also dismissed the report on the grounds that Jamil, a non-Baathist ex-Communist, is fairly insignificant and can't really be considered an authoritative voice of the Assad regime.
But there's another way of looking at this. Qadri Jamil may not be a central figure in the Assad regime but he is regarded as Russia's man inside it: he appears to have been appointed to the Syrian government at Moscow's behest and acts as a go-between for the two countries. As recently as last July he was in Moscow negotiating a loan on Assad's behalf.
That raises the possibility that Jamil, in his Guardian interview, was not so much speaking on behalf of the Syrian regime but speaking to it. In other words, that this was some kind of trial balloon and his remarks were intended as a message for Assad from Moscow.
As far as Russia is concerned, Syria without Assad may no longer be quite the unthinkable idea that it was. But if a political solution is to be found it will need some mechanism for Russia to dump Assad without too much loss of face.
This may not be as difficult as it seems. For the next eight months or so, there is a window of opportunity.
Consider this: on 26 May next year, under the Syrian constitution, Bashar al-Assad's current term as president will officially end.
Sometime during March, if the constitution is followed, the Speaker of parliament will invite nominations for the presidency and Assad will have 10 days to decide whether to seek another term.
Of course, there are all sorts of other things that might happen instead. The constitution could be ignored or amended, or Assad could simply decide to extend his presidential term.
On the other hand, Russia probably has enough influence (if it chooses to use it) to pressurise him into not standing again.
The natural expiry of his presidency could thus get Russia off the hook while also providing a way for Assad to leave the stage without formally resigning or appearing to have been forced out.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 28 September 2013