United States sees Bashar Assad staying in Syria until March 2017

January 6, 2016 9:00 pm

 Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have promised for years to end the Assad family’s 45-year-grip on . Photo / AP

The Obama administration’s best-case scenario for political
transition in Syria does not foresee Bashar Assad stepping down as the
country’s leader before March 2017, outlasting Barack Obama’s presidency
by at least two months, according to a document obtained by The
Associated Press.
An internal timeline prepared for U.S.
officials dealing with the Syria crisis sets an unspecified date in
March 2017 for Assad to “relinquish” his position as president and for
his “inner circle” to depart. That would be more than five years after
Obama first called for Assad to leave.
The timeline is based on a
broad U.N.-endorsed plan that was initially laid out at an
international conference in Vienna in November. Syria, according to that
strategy, would hold elections for a new president and parliament in
August 2017 ” some 19 months from now. In the interim, Syria would be
run by a transitional governing body.

Countless hurdles lie ahead for this latest blueprint for
ending five years of conflict that has killed more than a
quarter-million people, created the worst refugee crisis in Europe since
World War II and allowed the Islamic State group to carve out a
would-be caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria.
Not the least
of those hurdles is the growing rift between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and
Shiite-ruled Iran, which back opposite sides in the Syria conflict and
had to be lobbied heavily to agree to meet in Vienna to craft a way
forward for the war-torn country. Saudi Arabia executed a prominent
Shiite cleric and then severed diplomatic relations with Iran this week
after its embassy in Tehran was stormed by a mob protesting the death.
It is not yet clear what impact those developments might have on the Syria negotiations.
Saudi-Iranian tensions can be overcome, if peace talks between the
Syrian government and opposition go ahead later this month as planned
and if they are successful, the biggest challenge to the U.S. timeline
is still that no one else has yet agreed to its specifics, particularly
those related to Assad’s departure.
Assad has steadfastly refused
to step down while his nation’s terrorist threat, as he sees it,
persists. The timeline offers no explanation for exactly how Assad would
leave or what his post-presidential future might hold.
And his
chief backers, Russia and Iran, have resisted all efforts by outside
powers to determine Syria’s future leadership, insisting that is a
decision for the Syrian people. Russia and Iran may object to the U.S.
timeline’s call for Assad to leave six months before elections would be
In addition, the Syrian opposition wants Assad out as soon
as possible. The opposition along with U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia,
Qatar and Turkey could view the American concept as a betrayal.
is balancing numerous considerations as it seeks to quell
Syria’s violence and advance several strategic objectives. Its top
priority now is rooting out the Islamic State from its headquarters in
northern Syria.
Still, Obama and other U.S. officials promised
for years to end the Assad family’s 45-year-grip on Syria, arguing that a
leader who uses barrel bombs and poison gas on his own people has lost
legitimacy. Ridding Syria of Assad could also strip Iran of its foothold
in the heart of the Arab world and dramatically change the security
equation for neighbors such as Israel, Lebanon and Turkey.
recent months, Washington and its allies in European capitals have
retreated from demands that Assad leave power immediately as the Islamic
State gained territory in the region and the priority shifted to
defeating the militant group.
The timeline, however aspirational,
shows how U.S. diplomats and policymakers are determined to outline an
exit plan for Assad and not let concerns over the Islamic State and
other extremist groups allow him to cling to power indefinitely.
document obtained by the AP starts Syria’s new political process next
month. An 18-month transition period would be initiated, consistent with
the plan endorsed by the U.N. Security Council last month. The U.N.’s
special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has set a Jan. 25 date for
government-opposition peace talks to begin in Geneva.
The U.S.
timeline envisions the Security Council signing off on a framework for
negotiations between Assad’s representatives and the opposition, leading
to the formation of a security committee in April. That would be
accompanied by an amnesty for some government and military members, and
moderate opposition leaders and fighters. The transitional governing
body would then be created.
In May, the Syrian parliament would
dissolve, according to the timeline. The Security Council would
recognize the new transitional authority and lay out the transition’s
next steps. These include major political reforms, the nomination of an
interim legislature and an international donors’ conference to fund
Syria’s transition and reconstruction.
The next six months,
through November 2016 ” when Obama’s successor is elected ” would be
devoted to the sides drafting a new constitution. The Syrian people
would get a chance to vote on that document in a popular referendum in
January 2017, according to the timeline.
Only then would the
process lead to what Washington calls the root cause of the entire
conflict and the growing extremist threat across the and
beyond: the end of Assad’s rule of Syria.
In March 2017, the
timeline reads: “Asad relinquishes presidency; inner circle departs.”
The document uses the U.S. government’s preferred spelling of Assad.
new government would assume full powers from the transitional body
after the parliamentary and presidential elections in August.

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