Washington balking at democratic transition in Syria

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By Stephen Gowans

December 27, 2012

UN and Arab League appointed Lakhdar Brahimi (left) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Last June world powers called for a transitional government to succeed the current government in Syria. The United Nations and Arab League appointed Lakhdar Brahimi to negotiate a settlement with the Syrian government and opposition forces.

So far, Brahimi has made little headway. That’s to be expected. The deck is stacked against him.

With Washington, London, Paris and various Sunni Arab monarchies providing political and military support, the opposition has little motivation to negotiate. They must see their eventual victory as all but guaranteed.

At the same time, Washington must see recent rebel military gains as a sign that an opposition military victory is a very real possibility. It, too, then, has little motivation to see a settlement arrived at which stops short of its regime change objective.

Brahimi met this week with Syrian president Bashar Assad and various opposition groups and will meet with Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Saturday. Russia has also held talks with Syria.

One proposal under discussion, which has the backing of Assad’s allies in Moscow, would see the Syrian president’s authority gradually transferred to a transitional government, while Assad stays on as a figurehead president until his term expires in 2014. At that point, elections would be held.

If accepted, the proposal would end a civil war that has displaced hundreds of thousands and killed tens of thousands. It would also allow Syrians to decide their future peacefully in free elections, rather than at the point of a gun.

Given that Assad’s ally, Russia, floated the proposal, that Assad’s position is weakening, and that the proposal allows him to stay in the game, it’s likely that Assad is onboard.

Not so the other side.

Predictably, Radwan Ziadeh of the Syrian National Council dismissed the proposal, while Washington, equally predictably, insists that Assad step down as a precondition for talks.

But that’s not all. Washington is also demanding Assad’s disqualification from running in future elections. Neither condition helps end the conflict, nor serves the interests of Syrians as a whole.

Allowing Assad to stay on as a figurehead president is a concession of little significance, since power would eventually reside with a transitional government.

And why shouldn’t Assad be permitted to stand for re-election? If Syrians truly despise him, and wish to see him gone—as Washington and its allies would have us believe—he’ll get the boot at the polls.

Moreover, if the opposition is truly a popular movement for democracy, it can hardly object to Assad standing for election.

On the other hand, if Assad isn’t as unpopular as Washington and the rebels insist, he might emerge from a free election as victor, dashing the regime change agenda of the Sunni jihadists and US imperialists who object to his secular Arab nationalism.

Is the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which Washington and many of its allies have unilaterally dubbed the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, afraid that a free election might show that it is not the legitimate representative Washington says it is?

The truth of the matter is that the National Coalition, which is the brainchild of the US State Department, is representative of US military and economic interests in Syria.

Funny how Washington presents the conflict in Syria as a democratic struggle, but wants to limit who can run in elections. Sad too that it would let this anti-democratic condition stand in the way of arriving at a settlement to end a bloody civil war.

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