Talking to Mr Assad                 

The International Crisis Group is a widely respected thinktank based in Brussels. Yesterday it posted a statement about Syria on its website and various people started tweeting in its praise. The comments sounded like those "reviews" you find on theatre billboards or on the back cover of books:

Naturally, I clicked on the link and found so many vague platitudes that for a moment I wondered if it was some kind of parody. I was relieved, therefore, to see a few hours later that I wasn't the only person concerned by what it said. Rime Allaf, a Syrian, tweeted:

"Stunned by ICG Syria statement, rehashing diplomatic generalities & even suggesting flexibility with Assad in power"

That, more or less, is what I had been thinking myself. Basically, the ICG's view is that there has to be a political settlement in Syria, and it seems to have decided that the chemical weapons crisis provides a good opportunity to re-state its case. As a result it blurs the lines between two issues which, though related in some ways, need to be kept separate..

Discussions about military action (over chemical weapons), the statement says, should be judged based on whether it helps to revitalise the search for a political settlement or further postpones it. 

That would be a catastrophic mistake: it confuses goals and could very easily lead to mission creep and a further escalation of the conflict. Obama has already said that any direct military action in Syria should "meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons" – and he's absolutely right about that.

It would be tedious to analyse the ICG statement line by line but I can see why so many people have been nodding with approval. At a very superficial level it offers a "peaceful" alternative for Syria without delving too deeply into the difficulties of achieving that.

No reasonable person would disagree that at some point there will have to be a political settlement to clear up the mess. The question is when, and on what terms.

The most troubling part of the ICG statement is where it says a political solution requires "far-reaching concessions" from all parties but then proposes keeping Assad in power – at least for a while:

"A viable political outcome in Syria cannot be one in which the current leadership remains indefinitely in power but, beyond that, the US can be flexible with regards to timing and specific modalities."

Apart from the fact the Assad's departure is the most fundamental of the opposition's goals, the idea of doing business now with a man whose hunger for power has cost more than 100,000 lives ought to be utterly abhorrent.

But let's suppose that a deal could be agreed, with "the current leadership" and opposition forming a coalition for some "transitional" period. A transition that "builds on existing institutions" – most notably Assad's army – rather than replacing them (as the ICG proposes). A transition in which the US reaches out to Russia and Iran for help in seeing it through (again, as the ICG proposes).

It's easy to imagine what would happen next. Assad would view it as a lifeline and immediately start re-establishing himself. We are not talking here about a normal government. Syria is not Austria or New Zealand – it has the most ruthless regime in the Middle East.

The ICG's statement also calls for renewed efforts to convene a Geneva conference by the joint UN/Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi – a man who has the distinction of having negotiated more failed ceasefires than any other international diplomat.

Looking back through the ICG's website, I found another statement headed "Now or Never: A Negotiated Transition for Syria", advocating much the same thing when Kofi Annan was appointed as envoy. It's dated 5 March 2012, so the moment, if there really was one, has long since passed. 

Tragic as it is, there's no hope of a political settlement until Assad goes. But that's a matter for the Syrians and we should not view the chemical weapons issue as a way to bring it about.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 2 September 2013