Between Washington and Moscow: Assad's Exit a Condition or a Result of the Political Solution?

Detailed talks have begun on political transition in Syria.
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Beirut -- Detailed talks have begun on political transition in Syria, in light of the agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad stepping down in principle, at their meeting in Mexico at the G20 summit earlier this week. The United Nations and the League of Arab States have thus begun discussing the nature of the procedures for the process of transferring power in Damascus.

The international and regional discussions taking place to draft a roadmap for a solution in Syria include specific dates for the transitional process, including gradual dates. American and Russian negotiators have also gone into the details of who would leave and who would stay in Damascus, out of the regime's main military and security cadres, according to high ranking sources, which have also revealed numbers and names included in these compromises.

Alongside the American-Russian agreement over the transfer of power in Damascus, the other aspect of the progression on two parallel tracks has continued to move forward, taking the form of arrangements, preparations and measures for a military solution in case the political solution were to fail -- either as a result of political maneuvers, prevarication or delays on the part of the Russian sponsor in implementing such a solution, or as a result of the regime's leadership in Damascus refusing to implement the political solution by handing over power.

Thus, the countdown has begun in international and regional capitals concerned towards implementing a possible agreement over the Syrian president stepping down from power. Yet the negotiations taking place are extremely complicated, in view of the overlapping issues comprised in a potential "Grand Bargain," the features of which having partly dominated the two-hour American-Russian summit in Mexico.

This summit has led to positive signs and agreements over principles, but the crisis of trust between the two sides persists, which is why negotiations and concessions have taken on unilateral rather than bilateral characteristics, in terms what would happen on the day after understandings have been reached over a mechanism for working together.

Clearly Obama and Putin's decision is that they both need each other, and that the time is right for bilateral and international understandings to be reached. The United States accepting Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) is no simple matter, for instance.

And then there is the fact that Vladimir Putin wants to act as a strategic partner of the United States in combating Al-Qaeda. Putin wants to restore Russia's prestige from the soviet era, when the influence of the two superpowers was on equal footing during the Cold War. And he sees in taking on the role of sponsor in the Middle East an opportunity to emphasize the need of Western countries for Russia, and to do away with any dreams NATO member states might have about claiming superiority over Russia in resolving regional crises.

And just as Barack Obama needs Vladimir Putin, until at least the presidential elections next November, Putin in turn needs to support Obama, because the latter's Republican rival, Mitt Romney, has explicitly said what kind of relationship he would have with Russia, when he described it as the "number one geopolitical foe" of the United States. The two men now realize that the issue of Syria occupies the forefront of their relationship, and that there is no way to push such an issue into a dark corner, due to the enormity of the events on the ground and their impact on public opinion as well as on the fate of the role played by United Nations observers there.

There are numerous details being discussed, such as Washington considering that Bashar Al-Assad's exit from power should be part of launching the political process and the political solution, while the stance taken by Moscow is that the political process should be the one to determine Assad's fate and what comes after he is gone.

In other words, Washington and Moscow are negotiating over whether Assad's exit should be a condition for starting the process of political dialogue or a result thereof, and are working out the details of a political process that would include Bashar Al-Assad's exit from power.

According to a scenario put forward by one well-informed politician, who claims it to be subject to intense negotiations between the Americans and the Russians, the time frame for the process of handing over power is a matter of weeks or a month. And as per this scenario, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would hand over power to his Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa within a period of one month and would leave to Russia, which has shown its willingness to host him, to China or to Iran, according to this source. The same source added that talk is now focused on the names of those who would or would not leave with the Syrian President, from among security and military cadres numbering 17 personalities that are being negotiated over. This source takes it upon itself to say that there is a general agreement over these personalities, with the exception of four whom Russia insists should remain in Damascus to ensure protecting its interests and to facilitate maintaining its influence with the new regime.

This new transitional regime, the source said, would take the form of the Egyptian model, which is based on an exceptional role to be played by the military council, where this council would ensure a process of political transition that would not be stormed by the Islamists, who would impose a new system by seizing power. It was notable that this well-informed source mentioned that the United States was opposed to keeping four of the military and security cadres whom Russia insists on keeping in Damascus, but that it did not oppose for Assef Shawkat to remain in Damascus. As is known, Assef Shawkat is the Syrian President's brother-in-law, and is in charge of military intelligence; his name was on the list of those suspected of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. According to the timetable which the same sources spoke of, after power would be handed over to the Vice President provisionally by the Syrian President, Farouk Al-Sharaa would return the army to its barracks. This would be accompanied by guarantees to be provided by all those connected to the armed opposition in Syria or to militias that the armed opposition would also withdraw from the streets. Turkey, Qatar and others would have a special role to play in this respect.

After this, about 15 or 20 thousand peacekeeping troops, to be composed of international and Arab soldiers would engage in operations to preserve security, after entering the country and deploying there extensively - under a new mission that would not be restricted to an observation role, as is the role played today by the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). It is well known that the mission of the UNSMIS is currently suspended, that its mandate is scheduled to be renewed in the middle of July, and that a discussion is currently taking place at the United Nations over the options available on the field and in politics for deploying an armed peacekeeping force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, reinforced in terms of numbers and equipment. In other words, the new UN force, which might include a large and exceptional Arab element, would be the one to effectively manage the country and to keep the army politically neutral until the elections are held.

These elections could be held in order to elect a transitional council, or they could be parliamentary elections. They would be scheduled to be held, according to that same source, before the end of the year. They will most likely be elections for a transitional council that would draft the new constitution, and then hold general elections a year later, around June 2013. This source in not wagering on the Syrian President and the leaders of his regime agreeing to the process of political transition, even if Russia were to be its sponsor. Instead, the source believes that the leaders of the regime will fight to the end and will not accept the "Yemeni solution" scenario, based on the President agreeing to step down from power, even if this were to lead to a "Libyan model", or toppling the regime by force. If that really is the Syrian stance, it would force the regime's Russian ally to enter into a confrontation with the Syrian leadership, and Vladimir Putin will not accept, after having reached an understanding with Barack Obama, to appear weak, ignorant or powerless to implement the process of political transition he has agreed to.

Some speak of the inevitability of partitioning Syria if the leaders of the regime were to insist on rejecting the political solution based on the transition of power, but the basis and conditions of partitioning do not seem convincing, especially if the decision reached by the Americans and the Russians is not based on such an outcome. Some expect the issue to be settled in Syria in the coming weeks and months, and certainly before the end of the year, while others speak of a long-term war of attrition. Some fear for the war of attrition to spread to Lebanon and engulf it in sectarian bloodshed, but others consider a civil war in Lebanon, or a war of attrition that would have a broad and permanent impact, to be out of the question. Those fear for Lebanon to suffer from decay much more than from attrition.

Regionally, mutual mistrust prevails, whether within the framework of the progress of the process of political transition, or within that of relying on settling the matter militarily, as the only option left against a background of procrastination and maneuvering. This is why the two parallel tracks will be maintained together until commitments and timetables become clearer. The same applies to European countries continuing to equip the armed opposition and supplying it with intelligence, or to these countries intercepting Russian ships carrying weapons destined for the regime in Damascus.

Indeed, the crisis of trust is ongoing in opposite directions, and adheres to the two parallel tracks, while trade-offs and compromises are reaching an important phase in shaping the new Syrian regime, as well as the new regional order -- and the new world order.

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