Despite the U.S.-Russian arranged cease fire further political progress towards peace and stability in Syria will be hindered by elements of the Geneva agreement embodied in the UN Security Council (SC) resolution of last December.
Careful scrutiny of the resolution that incorporated the statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), adding commentary from the Arab League and the EU, reveals conflicting interests that will likely block an accord between the Syrian state and non-Jihadist Sunni organizations and fighting units. The resolution is also indicative of the major powers enabling their clients to limit the role of the Syrian electorate in the drafting of a new constitution.
The basis for conflicting interests between Washington and Moscow is the proposed structural relationship between the current Syrian State and an agreed upon opposition given the unsettled status of Assad.
Although the Russians had earlier offered to exclude Bashar Al Assad from any role in the rewriting of the Syrian constitution, they have long rejected his ouster as president, viewing it as an external imposition of regime change. But Bashar, as his father Hafiz before him, rules through the Baath Party. Though he dominates the party and state apparatus, the regime would remain intact after his departure as it would if he died peacefully in bed. This would not be comparable to regime change in Iraq or Libya.
The Russians could- if they deemed it strategically desirable- given its continual role insuring the survival of the Syrian state, persuade Assad to leave office. His exodus would greatly enhance cooperation from Sunni and secular opposition forces. Moreover the removal of Assad would eliminate a catalyst for revival of Jihadism even after the defeat of those forces in the present.
The SC however proposed a transitional government incorporating the existing Syrian State and opposition groups and this new interim government diminishing Baath state power could arguably be regarded as regime change This greatly reduces the likelihood Moscow would force Assad’s withdrawal. It is reasonable to assume that the reason Moscow agreed to an interim government was their intention that Assad would remain as head of state.
The likelihood of an understanding between the U.S. and Russia would be greater if the basic structure of the Syrian State not be altered before popular elections with Assad’s resignation being the quid pro quo. Moscow realizes that even substantial military gains by the Syrian state and their allies will require an alliance with opposition groups to gain victory and maintain peace and stability after the defeat of the jihadists.
The task assigned to an interim government by the SC to defeat the Jihadists could be accomplished through a joint military command of the Baathist State and opposition groups. This council or command could organize joint or separate military operations and also agree on the administration of services as well as oversight in liberated areas. This should be a major function of the collaborative political process. The Syrian state and the opposition would remain separate political units but in alliance for the common goal of defeating the Jihadists.
Difficulties in persuading their regional allies and clients to accept the suggested change in the political process described above could be overcome if these changes are perceived by the U.S. and Russia as necessary compromises to achieve an outcome vital to their national interests.This is exemplified by the U.S. nuclear agreement with Iran despite strong opposition by the Saudis and Israelis and the reluctant acceptance by Turkey.
Another highly questionable element of the SC resolution is its endorsement of the interim government, comprising the current Syrian state and the opposition, “set(ting) a schedule and a process” for drafting a new constitution preceding elections. There are no further stipulations regarding the proposed constitution.
The political units comprising such a government, given their histories have dubious credentials for the task. This was patently an effort by the two major powers and their regional allies to bargain over the shaping of the structure of a Syrian state to their own advantage. This would create doubt among the Syrian population about the thoroughness of democratization, an indispensable condition for long term stability.
An obvious alternative would be- with the defeat of the Jihadists- the establishment of an administrative body created by the Baathist state and opposition groups with UN oversight, to enable the Syrian people to directly vote for a parliament which would convene initially as a constituent assembly or to vote for representatives to a constitutional convention. In the latter case a parliamentary election would follow the drafting of a constitution. In either case a public referendum is also an option.