Will the new Geneva round of negotiations, under the supervision of the UN, finally help to break the political impasse over the future of Syria? Clearly, the crisis is entering a new phase as the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, supported by Russia, continues to gain traction. The West and Gulf countries that supported the opposition have moved on from the idea of wiping out the regime. Everyone is tired of the Syrian crisis that has resulted in nearly 350,000 deaths. Undoubtedly, the time has come to end a dark chapter in Syrian history.
The good news is that the Syrian opposition has finally managed to form a united front to negotiate with Damascus. On account of political immaturity, ego squabbles and foreign interference, anti-Assad groups often shot themselves in the foot.
At this stage, Russia is leading the way towards finding a political solution through serious negotiations between the regime and the opposition. To this end, Moscow needs legitimacy from the international community to bring about the final settlement.
It is a process that is built on three distinct tracks: the inter-Syrian political discussions in Geneva, the military discussions in Astana and finally, future discussions between Syrian religious and ethnic communities that would meet in a ‘national dialogue congress’. The aim is that these three lines of negotiations end up in congruence and reach a solution.
In the first stage at the Geneva deliberations, Russia does not intend to abandon Bashar Al-Assad. Only a few years ago, the prospect that the Syrian president would finish his term in 2021 would have been considered unrealistic and fanciful. Today, it is the most likely outcome. However, all sides are well aware that it is not possible to return to the situation before March 2011.
Syrians have suffered a lot. They aspire to find peace, rebuild their country and to discover a way by which they could live together again. Other people also suffered great tragedies and have risen from the rubble of the war. Why should Syria be an exception?Christian Chesnot
For the moment, the Syrian opposition is standing firm on its position that Bashar Al-Assad should cede power at the end of the transition period, if not at the very outset. However, there are opportunities to explore in UN Resolution 2254, which calls for the establishment of a "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" in Syria. This formula offers a real negotiating framework. It allows the inclusion of opponents in a cabinet with members of the regime. Obviously, the two sides hold fairly divergent positions, if not irreconcilable ones. But this is the case in all conflicts and is typical to every negotiation.
Everything will depend on the external pressure exerted on the protagonists. What is left is to imagine the constitutional architecture of the future of Syria. In this respect, we can trust experts on all sides to propose institutional formulas. Nothing is ideal, as the examples of Lebanon (Taif Accords) or Bosnia and Herzegovina (Dayton Accords) have shown.
End to over-centralized rule in Syria
What is certain is that it is difficult to imagine the continuation of the erstwhile centralized governance of Assad. All sides agree that the territorial unity of the country should be preserved. Lessons from the fiasco of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence vote have also been well understood by the Syrian Kurds. However, the new constitutional system will have to allow a measure of autonomy to Syrian provinces and regions.
Both the opposition and the regime must understand that Kurds can legitimately claim a degree of decentralization in the Syrian state. The regime’s negotiators must understand that being impervious to all opposition demands would be counterproductive and would only prolong the crisis. For its part, the opposition must understand that it is no longer able to dictate its terms. They will have to be realistic.
Syrians have suffered a lot. They aspire to find peace, rebuild their country and to discover a way by which they could live together again. Other people also suffered great tragedies and have risen from the rubble of the war. Why should Syria be an exception?
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.