A new window for diplomacy in Syria?

As the advance of ISIS continues to alarm governments across the Middle East and outside the region, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is probably viewing events with a certain amount of satisfaction. His counterterrorism narrative, long echoed by his closest allies, Iran and Russia, now resonates more widely.

So long as ISIS does not acquire aircraft and start dropping barrel bombs (in which event Assad would have the awkward task of differentiating his own use of random violence from that being used by “the terrorists”), in relationship to the most dangerous terrorist group in history it becomes increasingly easy to anticipate the reinvention of Assad as some kind of “moderate.”

No doubt he was never among the highest echelon of dictators. His fluent English and well-tailored suits suggested that if he held onto power for long enough, he might eventually be allowed back into the international club of moderates.

After all, Assad is more moderate than Pol Pot — though as the Cambodian leader illustrated, appearances can be deceptive.

David W. Lesch recently met with top Syrian officials in Beirut. He writes: Ever since it became clear that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon, the central question for any political settlement has been this: Can the Syrian regime give up enough power to satisfy at least the minimum requirements of a critical mass of the opposition? In the end, it may prove impossible to find a satisfactory formula, but it is certainly something worthy of careful exploration. War weariness has softened what had been a litany of hard-line positions by each side, creating a potential bargaining situation where the government’s political power can be traded between the provinces and Damascus. Much work remains on both sides, however, in terms of generating ideas that can potentially form the basis for compromise.

There is certainly reason to doubt the sincerity of the regime’s feelers to Western contacts, as Damascus often pursues several options at once, in an effort to have its cake and eat it, too. And the regime will bargain hard in an excruciatingly tedious process wherein it will try to seem as if it is giving up power without actually doing so in a meaningful way. There is also still the question of finding — and meticulously developing — viable negotiating partners on the opposition side amid increasing opposition polarization. And a “new” Syria cannot just replicate sectarian authoritarianism in another form, as happened in Iraq. But what other realistic option is there for ending a conflict in a way that contributes to the Middle East’s stability, rather than simply watching the war add to the regional conflagration?

If a negotiation can eventually be organized, the devil will be in the details. The problem is that neither side has really been compelled to think about the substance of its preferred form of governance in a systematic, coordinated fashion. This will take time and perseverance, as international mediators shuttle between the sides, away from the Geneva-type grand-bargain spotlight. The initial steps are quite basic: Learn about the real interests of the stakeholders, especially those on the ground, and then work with both sides to develop options that hopefully begin to reconcile competing political interests and engender further discussion — perhaps within each side first before moving on to the bilateral level.

Assad is a key. Only he can convince regime hard-liners to realize this is the only way forward. Recent history suggests the Syrian president may not be willing or able to do this if it means him giving up power. According to a senior official in Ankara, a top Turkish official met with Assad early in the uprising in 2011 to encourage him to enact political reform. He told Assad that a Syrian president would have more legitimacy by winning 40 percent of the vote in a true pluralist democracy than the usual 98 percent of the vote in Syria’s typical single-candidate referendums. Assad reportedly reacted to this by saying, “Well, what happens if I lose?” The Turkish official responded, “Then you retire.”

To date, Assad has found the option of “retiring” at some point unacceptable. [Continue reading…]

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