With more than 80,000 people dead and millions more driven from their homes, can Syria’s opposition and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime really negotiate a political settlement?
At least one opposition leader is willing to give it a try. Former Syrian National Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib presented a 16-point initiative today that would pave the way for a political transition in Syria. It calls for Assad to hand over power to either his vice president or prime minister, and to leave the country with 500 people of his choosing. The Syrian government would then remain in place for 100 days to restructure the security services, after which a transitional authority would replace it. Those fighters who engaged in "legal military action" during the conflict would be granted a pardon — but Assad and his 500 departing supporters would be provided with no legal protection.
That would be a great deal for the opposition. And given the circumstances, they just aren’t going to get it: Assad’s forces are on the offensive in several key areas, most notably the western city of Qusayr. Western governments are finally coming to grips with the fact that the regime is more stable than previously believed; German’s foreign intelligence agency now believes that the Syrian military can retake large swathes of the country by the end of the year. Khatib’s initiative reads like terms of surrender — Assad isn’t going to sign it at a moment when he’s winning.
Nevertheless, Khatib’s plan is an important indicator of where the Syrian opposition stands on the possibility of a peace deal. He likely released the proposal now because of internal opposition politics, rather than the state of the conflict more broadly: The Syrian National Council launched the beginning of its two-day general assembly in Istanbul today, where it will select a new president. Khatib abruptly resigned the presidency two months ago — only to immediately try to un-resign, a maneuver thwarted by his rivals in the coalition. Khatib may hope that, by floating his initiative now, he can convince the new opposition leadership to endorse it in the run-up to potential talks with the regime, which will be mediated by the United States and Russia.
The initiative also shows where the opposition disagrees — and where there is broad consensus — regarding a negotiated settlement with the regime. Following Khatib’s departure, the Syrian National Coalition has been largely dismissive of peace talks, saying that Assad’s departure must come first, while Free Syrian Army commander Salim Idris has repeatedly said that the rebels must receive a greater infusion of weaponry before peace talks can begin. But while there is friction between Khatib and other elements of the opposition on opening talks with the regime, they agree on an important point: At the end of the process, Assad must go.
Needless to say, that’s not something that Assad is yet willing to contemplate. And until he does, even if peace talks get off the ground, it’s doubtful that they will go very far.