The Geneva talks on Syria resumed this week with the opposition eager to see the question of political transition figuring prominently on the agenda while the regime seeks to avoid that at all costs.
Today, the opposition played rather a smart move by issuing a 1,900-word document setting out its "basic principles" for a political settlement.
This seems to have two important aims. One is to place the transition question firmly on the table and pressure the regime to respond.
The other is to reassure non-opposition Syrians – especially those working for the government. For example, it says that "as a general principle", all state and public sector employees will keep their jobs.
But the most interesting feature of the document is that it neatly sidesteps the thorniest question of all. There is no mention whatever of President Assad and his future. In fact, the word "president" does not occur in the document at all.
That is also a smart move. By not demanding Assad's departure the document has made it more difficult for the regime to reject discussion of a transition.
Calling for Assad to step down is an unnecessary complication at this stage and it's pointless to make it a stumbling block. That's because in the natural course of events he's due to go anyway in May, when his presidential term expires. The simplest way to get rid of him is not to demand his resignation but to ensure that the Syrian constitution is observed (i.e. that his term is not artificially extended) and that he doesn't stand for re-election.
This is something the Russians ought to be thinking about very seriously. Russia, as I pointed out in a recent blog post, has made calls for a negotiated solution a central plank of its Syria policy and now that talks are under way in Geneva its status as a world power with influence is on the line. It cannot afford to let the talks fail but there is no way they can succeed if it insists on keeping Assad in power.
Russia is clearly unwilling to formally dump Assad and Assad is equally unwilling to resign. But allowing his presidency to expire naturally and constitutionally would be a slightly different matter. There's a moment of opportunity on the horizon – if the Russians and Assad can be persuaded to seize it.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 12 February 2014