The battle over Syria’s future shifts to New York this week as the United Nations Security Council is to debate a new resolution calling for an end to the violence in that country and a move toward full democracy. A proposal from the Arab League that calls for a handover of power in Damascus is expected to be the centrepiece of the resolution.
But as the council debates, it is the efforts of Syria’s two staunchest allies that may hold the key to success.
On Sunday, in an extraordinary statement, Iran called on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to allow the Syrian people to exercise their “legitimate rights” and usher in democratic reforms.
“We cannot deny that some people in Syria, a portion of people in Syria are looking for their legitimate rights just like any other people in any other country,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, speaking in Addis Ababa.
“They have to have a free election, they have to have the right constitution, they have to allow different political parties to have their activities freely in the country,” he added.
And that is what Mr. al-Assad has promised to do, Mr. Salehi said, urging the international community to give the Syrian leader some time.
For its part, Russia has said it will veto any Security Council resolution that either calls for the use of force against Syria or that is predicated on the immediate end of the al-Assad regime. At the same time, however, Russia is believed to be trying hard to persuade the Syrian President to accept the ultimate futility of his violent crackdown on the opposition in Syria.
The Arab League’s plan is to be presented to the Security Council on Tuesday by the League’s Secretary General, Nabil Elaraby, and Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani, who chairs the League’s committee dealing with Syria.
The League first suspended Syria from the 22-member organization in November and voted to impose sanctions in an effort to end the violence in the country. Damascus finally accepted a peace plan that called for it to withdraw its armoured force from populated areas, allow observers and foreign media to monitor the situation, and begin a dialogue with the opposition. At that point the League dispatched observers to Syria to monitor its compliance.
On Saturday, the League suspended its monitoring mission because of what it described as a dramatic upsurge in violence, making conditions dangerous for the observers and indicative of defiance by Damascus.
More recently, the organization, prodded by the influential states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, demanded that President al-Assad delegate powers NOTE: PLURAL IS INTENDED, PLEASE LEAVE IT AS POWERS]/note> to his vice-president to negotiate with representatives of the opposition on the formation of a national unity government and the handover of power to a democratic administration.
Damascus, supported by Russia, denounced the idea of a full handover of authority by the Syrian president.
However, there may be a certain amount of wiggle room in the Arab League proposal. Handing over to the vice-president powers to negotiate, for instance, need not mean resigning all presidential powers.
Indeed, Syrians, including former members of the regime, say that for a proposal such as this to succeed, it has to allow for Mr. al-Assad to remain in office, albeit with reduced powers, until a democratic government is elected and a democratic election for president takes place.
This may mean not replacing Mr. al-Assad “before presidential elections in 2014,” said Sami Moubayed, editor of Forward magazine, based in Damascus, and a critic of the regime.
A proposal that would have Mr. al-Assad step down first is a “non-starter,” said a former senior official in the Syrian government. Mr. al-Assad needs an incentive to resign himself to a transition from power. Otherwise, he said, the Syrian leader will just keep on killing.
Even Qatar, author of the Arab League initiative, said Sunday its plan foresees the “peaceful departure” of the Syrian regime.
Meanwhile, anything but peace accelerated over the weekend. The Local Co-ordination Committees, an umbrella organization of internal Syrian activists, reported more than 60 people killed Sunday, bringing to almost 300 the number killed since Friday.