Saturday, October 24, 2015

Update: International Community’s Position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

By Christopher Kozak, Syria Analyst, Institute for the Study of War

Several international actors including partners within the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition recently changed or clarified their narratives concerning the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in any political settlement to the Syrian Civil War. The shift in narratives has likely been driven by the Russian intervention into Syria and its concurrent outreach to U.S. regional partners. These changes constitute a metric for measuring the increasing influence held by Russia over Middle Eastern security concerns relative to the U.S. ISW previously published key statements by international actors including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the European Union, and the U.S. on September 30, in order to capture the emergent shift in attitudes. This post provides an update to significant statements regarding international leaders’ positions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad between September 30 and October 24.

The U.S. and several of its regional partners have begun to coalesce around a proposal for a political transition which would permit Assad to retain his position in a limited capacity for up to six months in exchange for guarantees of his ultimate departure. Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular softened their demands for an immediate departure of Assad and privately expressed an ability to tolerate his temporary presence in a transitional government. Russia and Iran nevertheless continue to defend Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria while their military forces change conditions on the ground in his favor. Several regional powers normally aligned with the U.S. including Egypt and Jordan established military cooperation agreements with Russia that may move them closer to the Russian position on a negotiated settlement to end the Syrian Civil War.

Significant Statements:

United Kingdom – The United Kingdom reaffirmed its willingness to accept a temporary role for Assad in a transitional administration in exchange for a successful settlement to the conflict.

  • Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond: 04 OCT – “If the price for [ending the Syrian Civil War] is that Assad will remain as titular head of state for a period of time, do I really care if that’s three days, three weeks, three months, or even longer? I don’t think I do.” (The Telegraph)
European Union – The European Union released a joint statement on the Syrian Civil War which attempted to merge the differing stances towards Assad held by Europe. France maintains a strong position calling for the removal of Assad while Germany and several other European states have been much more reticent in their approach.
  • European Council Joint Statement: 12 OCT – “There cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the present leadership and until the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all components of the Syrian society are addressed.” (EU)
Russia – Russian attempted to portray itself as a neutral actor in the Syrian Civil War through hints that Assad may depart as the leader of Syria over the long-term. Nonetheless, Russia continued to defend the legitimacy of Assad and the Syrian regime as a whole.
  • Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev: 17 OCT - “We are not fighting for specific leaders, we are defending our national interests…at the moment Russia is working on the basis that Assad is the legitimate president.” (AFP)
Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia softened its position on Assad by expressing an ability to tolerate his presence in a transitional government for several months. This apparent shift conflicts with other statements reflecting persistent Saudi demands for Assad’s immediate departure.
  • Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir: 19 OCT – “After the formation of this [transitional] governmental body, President Assad must step down. If it is a matter of months, two or three months or less, that is not important. But Assad has no future in Syria." (Reuters)
  • Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir: 22 OCT – [On whether Assad could play a role in an interim Syrian government] “His role would be to leave Syria... The best case scenario is that we wake up in the morning and Bashar al-Assad is not there."
Turkey – Turkey also softened its stance on Assad following diplomatic talks with the U.S. and other partner nations, acceding to a transitional administration which preserves Assad as a titular head of state for up to six months.
  • Anonymous Turkish officials: 20 OCT – Turkey provided initial support for a political transition that retains Assad as the “symbolic president” of a “transitional administration” for up to six months on the condition that Assad hold no control over the Syrian military or intelligence apparatus and that there be a "guarantee of his departure". The proposal was reportedly formed with a group of nine countries including the U.S. during the UN General Assembly sessions in late SEP 2015. (Hurriyet)
Iran – Iran mirrored Russian rhetoric on the future role played by Assad in a reflection of the deepening strategic alignment between the two countries over the Middle East.
  •  Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: 21 OCT - "In any political process the role played by Bashar al-Assad will be important...we are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as presidentBut we are very cognizant of his role in the fight against terrorism and the national unity of that country. The people of Syria will make the final decision – and whatever decision they take, we will endorse.” (The Guardian)