Told he must go, Syria’s Assad may outlast Obama in office
A peace plan agreed to last weekend by 17 nations meeting in Vienna says nothing about Assad’s future
As the United States has turned its attention to defeating ISIS, it has softened its stance on the Syrian leader. More than four years ago, Obama demanded that Assad leave power.
Administration officials later said Assad did not have to step down on “Day One” of a political transition. Now, they are going further.
A peace plan agreed to last weekend by 17 nations meeting in Vienna says nothing about Assad’s future, but states that “free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months.”
To clarify the timeline, the State Department said this past week that the clock starts once Assad’s representatives and opposition figures begin talks on a constitution. The vote would determine a new parliament, though not necessarily a new president.
Getting to constitutional talks will be difficult. It implies that Syria’s warring parties first reach a cease-fire and establish a transition government — something unattainable so far. Neither Syria’s government nor its fractured opposition has endorsed the strategy yet or done much to advance it.
“Nothing can start before defeating the terrorists who occupy parts of Syria,” Assad recently told Italian state television. Assad considers anyone fighting him, including moderate rebels, to be “terrorists.”
Obama countered: “I do not foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power. ... Even if I said that was OK, I still don’t think it would actually work. You could not get the Syrian people, the majority of them, to agree to that kind of outcome. And you couldn’t get a number of their neighbors to agree to that outcome, as well.”
Syria was the focus for Secretary of State John Kerry as he headed to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday for talks with government leaders. Many more discussions with Arab officials are planned over the next months.
The uncertainty of the new peace process, particularly as it pertains to Assad, points to Washington’s evolution from early in the civil war, when Obama and other officials boldly stated the Syrian president’s days were “numbered” and sought his immediate departure.
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