The question of who could replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been asked throughout the conflict, and has gained urgency amid defections and rebel gains against his regime. The formation of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and its military arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA), brought to the fore Syrian politicians, army defectors and technocrats who were viewed as transitional figures.
FSA founder Riad al-Asaad was seen as the best candidate when the FSA began to take the lead on the battlefield. However, with rising concerns about its radical attitude, Paris-based Burhan Ghalioun stepped up as an uncontroversial technocrat who could bring together secular and religious groups. When Islamists took power in other Arab countries, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib was seen as a good transitional figure.
With Islamists’ unsuccessful rule, and amid attempts to prove the moderate attitude of the SNC and FSA, independent writer and secular Marxist Michel Kilo, and long-time dissident George Sabra, were then seen as good candidates.
However, with criticism of SNC leaders being based aboard or exiled, the focus was on Haytham Manna. As part of a major Levantine tribe, Ahmad al-Jarba was then seen as a good transitional figure when there was a need to engage Syrian tribes in the fight against Assad and foreign extremists.
Assad will likely leave Syria’s political scene one way or another, but he will probably be replaced by a national assembly that includes regime figures, rather than by an opposition representativeRaed Omari
However, due to the SNC’s failure to present itself as a cohesive and reliable opposition, as well as the emergence of key Islamist and jihadist players on the ground, talk of the aforementioned figures as possible replacements to Assad dissipated.
At one point, when the conflict began acquiring sectarian overtones, and amid recognition of the need to include regime figures in a transition process, Syrian Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa - a Sunni Muslim - was seen by the opposition as a suitable replacement. However, questions have been raised about the circumstances of his disappearance from the political scene.
One of the most important factors in the debate over a viable replacement for Assad is the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He has used the group as a scarecrow, with the message: “Better me than ISIS.” Russia’s military intervention in support of the regime is another complicating factor, with Assad now seemingly unconcerned about being replaced.
He will likely leave Syria’s political scene one way or another, but he will probably be replaced by a national assembly that includes regime figures, rather than by an opposition representative. This scenario has been alluded to by both Washington and Moscow.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via [email protected], or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2
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