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April 22, 2016 No.
1240

Arab Press Reports On U.S.-Russia Understandings Allowing Assad To Remain In Power In Syria During Transitional Phase

By: N. Mozes*

According to many reports in the Arab press in recent days, alongside the indirect talks in Geneva between the Syrian regime and opposition that are being mediated by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, the U.S. and Russia have been conducting separate secret talks to draw up understandings on resolving the crisis. The reports state that the U.S. is inclined to accept the position of the Syrian regime and its Russian ally, namely, that the idea of a transitional governing body should be abandoned in favor of a joint regime-opposition body, and that the Syrian regime should remain in the hands of President Bashar Al-Assad, at least in the transitional phase.

Concurrently, during his talks with the regime and opposition delegations, de Mistura presented an idea that he claims he did not initiate, which involves Assad remaining as a figurehead president and appointing deputies to whom he would delegate his political and military authority. It is hard to imagine that the U.S. and Russia were unaware of this proposal, which is in line with what has been reported on their own understandings regarding Assad's remaining president during the transitional period. These reports, if true, show that the U.S. has backed down even further from its position vis-à-vis Assad and the Syrian opposition, and that it is disregarding the clause in the 2012 Geneva I communique calling for the establishment of a transitional body with full authority.

Arab press reports on these U.S.-Russia efforts increased greatly after Secretary of State John Kerry's March 24, 2016 meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin. Following the meetings, Kerry said that both sides had agreed to step up their efforts to achieve a political transition in Syria and had agreed on a timetable and that a draft constitution would be submitted in August 2016.[1] On April 8, Kerry confirmed reports that the U.S. was further backing down from its previous position when he told the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV channel that while Assad can no longer lead his country in light of the many crimes he had committed, he would still be present at the start of the transitional phase. He added that if Assad would facilitate this phase, then a safe exit for him could be discussed.[2]

According to the Arab reports, the U.S.-Russia understandings would be imposed on the parties involved, as with the February 12, 2016 agreement on cessation of hostilities. In another similarity to that agreement, the Assad regime will be the main one to benefit.

This paper will review the reports on U.S.-Russia understandings on the Syrian crisis:


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov (image: Orient-news.net, April 17, 2016) 

Anti-Assad Media: American-Russian Deal Includes Assad Remaining In Power

On April 16, 2016, three days after the start of the third round of indirect talks in Geneva between the Syrian regime and opposition under the mediation of UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that Western diplomats "are warning that there will be a U.S.-Russia deal on Syria before the summer." According to the report, it is the Americans who are pressuring the Russians to arrive at understandings that are to be "very close to the Russia proposal regarding the nature of the transitional phase, the regime, the constitution, and the elections." The diplomats cited in the report said that the U.S. is trusting Moscow to find a solution for the Syrian crisis while ignoring Western and regional elements.[3]

The following day, the newspaper reported that the U.S. and Russia were discussing not only "regime leader Bashar Al-Assad's remaining in power during the transitional phase, but also the central role he would play in it, including in drafting a constitution and in the elections set for 18 months after the start of negotiations between the sides."[4] In a later report, the paper cited Western sources who warned against recycling "the Yemen model" under which Yemen president 'Ali 'Abdallah Saleh had officially been removed but had in effect remained in control of the armed forces and in possession of many political cards.[5]

On April 17, the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat also reported on the U.S.-Russia talks. According to the daily, Robert Malley, the White House Coordinator for the Middle East and chief advisor to President Obama on Syria, and Putin's Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev were holding intensive talks behind the scenes with the aim of drawing up "constitutional and political principles" based on a "political partnership" between the regime and the opposition, "in accordance with an improved Lebanese model."[6] Under this proposal, the regime and opposition would share executive, military, security, legal, and constitutional authority. The newspaper also stated that Obama would present these understandings during his visit to the Gulf states on April 21, and that the Russians would present them to Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who recently visited Moscow. The understandings would then be brought before Syrian regime representatives, and a "select list" of oppositionists who agree to a political solution.[7]

On April 18, 2016, the London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid reported that in light of the Geneva talks' failure so far to bring the sides closer together, representatives of presidents Obama and Putin are working in Geneva to formulate an alternative plan in the event that the negotiations fail; this plan would be imposed on the sides via a UN Security Council resolution, under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Two main proposals to resolve the crisis were presented at these U.S.-Russia Talks: The first is based on the principle of a "political partnership" among all elements of Syrian society, which would be more comprehensive than the 1989 Taif Agreement and would include leaving Assad in power, because he controls the main power base in Syria. The second proposal includes the establishment of a transitional council comprising eight technocrats; this council would lead the transitional phase.[8]

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov denied the reports about secret U.S.-Russia talks, stressing that they were "routine consultations."[9] However, during the regime-opposition Geneva talks, de Mistura brought the delegations a proposal "from an expert" that also involved Assad's remaining in power, at least temporarily. Under this proposal, he would continue to serve as president and would appoint three deputies to whom he would delegate his political and military authority and who would manage the country during the transitional phase.[10] It is hard to imagine that the U.S. and Russia, who sponsor the Geneva talks, were unaware of this proposal, which is in line with what has been reported on their own understandings regarding Assad's remaining president during the transitional period.

As noted, these reports come in addition to similar reports in the Arab press following Kerry's March 24 visit to Moscow that focused on a U.S.-Russia convergence on the issue of the Syrian crisis. Thus, the London-based Qatari daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported on March 30, 2016 that the U.S. and Russia had drawn up the general details of a three-point plan that includes general parliamentary elections under UN auspices, a new constitution, and creation of a presidential election mechanism allowing Assad to run "even though the U.S. would prefer that Russia persuade him not to do so." The report also added that the president's authority would be downgraded.[11] Al-Hayat reported on March 31 that Kerry had informed Arab countries that the U.S. and Russia had arrived at understandings that included Assad's exit to another country, but not a timetable for it.[12]

On April 11, 2016, a Syrian oppositionist website reported that Russia had prepared an alternative plan in case the Geneva talks failed; it dictated the establishment of a military council comprising both regime and opposition elements; this council would rule the country and prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections. Under this plan, there would be no transitional phase and no interim ruling body, as neither are compatible with the current Syrian constitution. Russia reportedly presented this plan to Kerry during the latter's Moscow visit, and Kerry assured his hosts that the U.S. would not oppose it but that Russia would have to persuade the opposition to accept it.[13]   

Kerry: Assad Should Remain For Start Of Transitional Phase

The American administration's statements on resolving the Syrian crisis are rife with internal contradictions. For example, officials repeatedly state that Assad is illegitimate because of his crimes against his people, and that he cannot unite Syria, but at the same time Kerry said that Russia and the U.S. have agreed that he should remain for the start of the transitional phase. This effectively confirms reports that the American position is moving closer to the Russian one, and that the former no longer objects to Assad's remaining in power during the transitional phase.

In an April 8, 2016 interview, Kerry told the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV: "During the transitional phase, Assad will remain in power in accordance with the Geneva [I] communique, since this communique required joint [regime and opposition] consensus regarding the phase. This means that both Assad and the opposition must join this consensus... The U.S. and Russia have reached an agreement that was reached also with many other countries, that is, there is no escaping a transitional phase followed by a united, secular, and non-sectarian Syria... Likewise, we agreed that Assad should be present at the start of the transitional phase...

"The Russians have made it clear that Assad has assured them that he will participate in the transitional phase and support the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of presidential elections. If he does not meet his commitments, I do not believe the Russians will continue to support him."

In response to the question of whether Assad would be allowed safe passage out of Syria if he agreed to step down, Kerry responded: "... If Assad is willing to be a constructive factor in the efforts to make peace in Syria, this safe passage would receive significant attention, and the sides should seriously consider this effort and enable Assad to live safely, which is what I wish for him..."[14]

On April 16, a Syrian opposition website also reported that the U.S. had agreed to postpone the debate on Assad's fate, and stated that Kerry, on his April 7 visit to Bahrain, had told the Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers that Assad's withdrawal from power should not be discussed at this time.[15]  

U.S.-Russia Military Coordination

Although U.S. administration officials reject the prospect of military coordination with Russia and the Syrian regime against the Islamic State (ISIS), there are indications of U.S.-Russia coordination regarding military activity in Syrian territory. Thus, the Syrian Democratic Forces - an umbrella organization of Kurdish and Sunni Arab forces fighting ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and Islamist opposition factions - received aerial support from both the U.S.-led international coalition and the Russian air force during its takeover of the city of Al-Shaddadi in southern Al-Hasakah in northwest Syria.[16] On March 24, the Pentagon reported that international coalition jets had bombed an ISIS post near Tadmur.[17] A Syrian oppositionist website reported that this attack was carried out as regime forces, backed by the Russian air force, reached the outskirts of the city.[18]  

The Syrian Opposition Fears That The U.S. Will Back Down Still More From Its Original Position

The Syrian opposition, represented by the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) that was established in Riyadh, expressed grave concern at the reports of an imminent U.S.-Russia deal enabling Assad to remain in power, and displeasure at the U.S. for not updating it on the details of such a deal.[19] On April 2, 2016, HNC general coordinator Riyad Hijab said: "It is clear that the U.S. has agreed with Russia on vague matters of whose nature we are not being informed... We do not fear rapprochement between the U.S and Russia, but rather the vagueness and opaqueness of these relations."[20] Basma Qadmani, a member of the HNC delegation to the Geneva talks, stressed: "The American ambiguousness is disturbing to the Syrian opposition... We do not know what the U.S. discussed with Moscow. There are all sorts of rumors, and we are waiting for the U.S. to confirm that it still opposes leaving Assad in power."[21]

In light of this ambiguity, HNC officials stressed that the purpose of the current Geneva talks was to establish a transitional governing body with full authority in accordance with the Geneva I communique, which they interpret as including Assad's departure and a replacement of the existing regime.  

* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


Endnotes: 

[1] Nytimes.com, March 24, 2016.

[2] Alarabiya.net, April 8, 2016.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 16, 2016.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 17, 2016.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 18, 2016.

[6] A reference to the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war and distributed political, civil, and military authority in the country along sectarian lines. Past reports indicated an intention to implement the Lebanese model in Syria as well.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), April 17, 2016.

[8] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), April 18, 2016.

[9] Sputniknews.com, April 18, 2016.

[10] Webtv.un.org, April 18, 2016.

[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 30, 2016.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), March 31, 2016.

[13] Orient-news.net, April 11, 2016.

[14] Alarabiya.net, April 8, 2016.

[15] Alsouria.net, April 16, 2016.

[16] Orient-news.net, February 19, February 20, 2016.

[17] Defense.gov, March 24, 2016.

[18] Zamanalwsl.net, March 24, 2016.

[20] Etilaf.org, April 2, 2016.

[21] Orient-news.net, April 3, 2016.