One Step At a Time: The Realistic Path to Transition in Syria

Following the horrendous attacks in Paris and Beirut over the last week, the international community is now galvanizing towards a political solution in Syria.

It's an opportunity we can't let slip through our hands.

After almost two months since the last meeting between President Obama and Putin, a more constructive picture of the two leaders is now splashed across our papers.

It's a big call claiming I have the solution to Syria's horrendous civil war, but after almost five years, I think it's time for some bold realism.

And action.

Both the US and Russia (and every other country) agree Islamic State must be dealt with and obliterated.

The critical question remains what to do about Assad.

The US remains adamant that Assad can have no future in Syria, while Russia and Iran remain equally resolute on his future.

It's time for some pragmatism: let Assad run for elections but ensure he has no part in a transitional authority.

Sounds crazy? Hear me out:

The Geneva Communique negotiated by Kofi Annan in June 2012 and agreed to by Russia had a critical compromise of a Transitional Governing Body which solidified a future path:

"The conflict in Syria will only end when all sides are assured that there is a peaceful way towards a common future for all in Syria. It is therefore essential that any settlement provides for clear and irreversible steps in the transition according to a fixed time frame. The key steps in any transition include:

• The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent."

The critical words: "shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent," require two (or more) Syrian groups with irreconcilable objectives to reconcile those objectives.

Seems impossible? Yes...

....but there is a chance.

As much as I hate to admit it, if we're being realistic the way forward must satisfy the Russian and Iranian demand that Assad not step down from the presidency and not be proscribed from running in new elections.

But, during the period of the transition, Assad's powers must be suspended. This is where we need Russia and Iran to compromise. The reason Assad's power must be suspended is to comply with the objective of the Transitional Governing Body to establish a neutral environment.

Assad can't exercise executive powers during the period of establishing the neutral environment because most of the population is actually terrified of him and are fleeing the barrel bombs he is dropping.

I remember from an early age being instructed by my mother never, ever to say anything about the regime publicly because there was such a fear about any recrimination.

I was seven when she first told me this.

The regime has utilized the resources and institutions of the state for its own survival, including the military and security forces, the national media and international humanitarian aid. It would be impossible to establish a neutral environment if Assad continued to exercise executive control during the transition period and the opposition would never accept an election process controlled by Assad.

Finally, Assad has made clear that he wishes to stand for re-election and consequently can't be considered an impartial actor capable of facilitating a neutral environment.

Furthermore, any actors in the Transitional Governing Body should preclude themselves from election to guarantee the establishment of a neutral environment and avoid conflicts of interests.

So where we all need to focus is to at least get Assad to give up executive power to a Transitional Governing Body for a limited period in return for eligibility to run for re-election.

Assad will not voluntarily accept any proposal by which his powers are suspended, even temporarily. However, in light of Assad's reliance on Iran and Russia in the current environment, there is a good chance that if Iran and Russia exerted enough pressure on Assad to accept the compromise in this discussion paper, he would have to accept.

So as talks amp up about the political solution in Syria (which if successful will play a significant part in the obliteration of ISIS) we must focus on at least securing a Transitional Governing Body to establish neutral environment.

Of course, any elections should be supervised by the UN, consistent with the Vienna Communiqué. If they were organized by the UN it would be even better.