Diplomacy for shunting Syrian President Bashar Assad out of the way of moves for ending his country’s five-year-old civil war gained new impetus this week. Prying Assad loose from power has defeated every past effort from inside or outside the Middle East. For now, at least in public, he looks relaxed, shakes hands, smiles and appears unconcerned by the mighty forces gathering this week to cut his presidency short.
In an interview with Iran’s Khabar TV on Oct. 4, the embattled leader said he is willing to step down if he thinks such a move would help end the conflict. Later this month, Russian parliamentary secretary Sergey Gavrilov, who met Assad on October 25, quoted the Syrian leader as agreeing to broad dialogue with all “responsible” political forces on the country’s future, and for constitutional reform and both parliamentary and presidential elections if needed.
A joint US-Russian anti-peace “target list”
On Oct. 20, Assad was unwillingly summoned to the Kremlin for an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Three days later, the foreign ministers of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met in Vienna to test the water for a serious effort to pull the diplomatic process out of the mud.
It was soon evident, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report, that the only practical suggestion for ending Assad’s presidency was offered in a new seven-point peace plan, which Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov unveiled to his fellow foreign ministers in Vienna on Oct. 23. They found it promising enough to move fast and reconvene a broad multilateral conference in Vienna this Friday, Oct. 30 to explore its potential as the basis for a political blueprint for resolving the Syrian conflict.
This conference is to be attended by the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, France and the European Union.
Iran was invited at the last minute for the first time to this kind of forum, with US approval over initial Western-backed objections. Foreign Minister Muhammed Javad Zarif considered it important enough to bring with him two deputy ministers.
Our sources have obtained exclusive access to the Russian plan and outline its seven points below:
Moscow: ceasefire as prelude to national dialogue
1. Russia and Washington will draw up an agreed “target list” of parties standing out against a political resolution of the conflict. They are to be attacked jointly by US and allies and Russian forces. The proposal does not go into the nature of a bilateral mechanism for determining who figures on the “target list.”
However, bilateral cooperation is the basis of this clause.
Moscow would really prefer the Russian and the US-led coalition air forces not to confine their attacks to ISIS, but extend them also to Syrian rebel groups. Russia could then refute US and NATO allegations that only one out of every nine Russian air strikes is directed against an ISIS target, with the majority aimed at Syrian rebel groups.
As DEBKA Weekly reported in its previous issue, the Obama administration did not reject a priori the proposed US-Russian air force collaboration in Syria and Iraq, but requested additional clarifications from Moscow.
2. Moscow proposes an immediate cease-fire on all Syrian army-rebel warfronts. The proposal does not say if it should apply to the foreign forces fighting in the country, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hizballah, the pro-Iranian militias and the Russians themselves.
Constitutional reform obliges Assad to cede presidential powers
3. Once the cease-fire goes into effect, all the parties and organizations involved in the war will be convened for a national dialogue. This round-table conference will have three main goals:
A. Release of all prisoners and hostages held by the various sides.
B. Preparation of parliamentary and presidential elections with a general amnesty for political prisoners.
C. Establishment of a new government committed to implementing agreed constitutional reforms that center on the transfer of presidential powers from Assad to the designated prime minister.
In other words, Assad will not be made to step down as president at once, but will have to give up his presidential powers, including control of the military and intelligence services.
It is assumed that Putin put this clause before the Syrian ruler in Moscow as a diktat he had no choice but to accept.
4. The Russian president offers a personal guarantee that Assad will not be permitted to run for president in the coming elections, but he has accepted the Syrian ruler’s proviso that members of his family and ruling caste will be eligible for election.
5. All the rebel groups and militias that take part in implementing the Russian plan will be absorbed into Syria’s military or other security services and place themselves under their orders.
6. Governments and other bodies outside Syria will undertake to halt weapons supplies to all combatant forces. This provision applies not only to the US and Saudi Arabia with regard to rebel groups, but also to Russia and Iran as sponsors of the Syrian army.
7. Russia will continue to maintain military force in Syria as security for the agreement’s full implementation, contingent on UN Security Council endorsement of its presence.
International pressure for Assad’s exit builds up
Just three days after The Russian plan was unveiled, it ran into opposition.
On Oct. 26, during a visit to Cairo, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced his country’s rejection of the plan: “There are ongoing international consultations on implementing the Geneva One proposal”, he said. “We are committed to implementing the principles of Geneva to establish a transitional authority that installs a constitution and directs the government and military ahead of elections.”
It was understood that, for Riyadh, progress toward ending the war in Syria was contingent on progress for terminating Yemen’s civil war to which Saudi Arabia has committed its military.
That was Saudi position before its foreign minister attended the multilateral conference on Friday and may not be its last word.
Meanwhile, on October 26, Assad received a rare visitor. He was Oman’s Yussef bin Alawi, the first Arab foreign minister to visit Damascus since the Syrian war erupted five years ago.
Their joint communiqué reported that they had discussed ideas proposed at “regional and international levels” for a resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Iran lines up with Russia, first ambivalence on Assad
The invitation to Tehran was issued the day after the Omani foreign minister met Assad in Damascus.
Our sources have learned that his mission was to notify Assad that Iran had decided to accept the Russian plan which is gaining ground by leaps and bounds.
Although the Syrian ruler has often proved to be adept at wriggling out of any form of pressure, the front lining up for his ouster is formidable indeed. Even his closest allies are beginning to sound ambivalent.
Last week, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian commented: “We are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as president, but we are very cognizant of his role in the fight against terrorism and the national unity of that country. The people of Syria will make the final decision and whatever decision they take, we will endorse.”
No one has so far mentioned ISIS. Is anyone interested? See separate article in this issue.