The Assad ultimatum

Unless the issue of Assad’s future is tackled early on, the Vienna talks will lead nowhere.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad [REUTERS]
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad [REUTERS]

The expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s campaigns outside the Middle East and the military response to that threat has dominated coverage of Syria in recent months, but behind that lies the best shot at a diplomatic solution since the crisis began.

The Vienna agreement – although lacking the pomp and ceremony of the Geneva peace meetings – has set out an ambitious new package to bring the conflict to an end and chart a way forward for the beleaguered country.

Opposition-government talks are to begin by the start of 2016. A new credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian government is expected within six months after that, as well as a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. Free United Nation-backed elections are planned after 18 months, in which all Syrians, including refugees outside the country, are able to vote.

Syrian opposition groups to hold unity talks in Riyadh

The toxic issue 

With just over 150 days until a theoretical ceasefire at the start of this week, Syria’s fragmented opposition met in Riyadh in an attempt to unify before possible peace talks.

Despite the complexities and huge range of issues that will be on their agenda, one big one is expected to dominate as it has the story of Syria for so long – what is the future of President Bashar al-Assad?

The players at the Vienna talks didn’t include any Syrians and addressing the toxic issue of whether Assad will stay or go was generally fudged with the answer that a “transition” of some sort will occur.

READ MORE: Assad has already lost

Syria is much more than one man and for a process to truly take the country out of the darkness, the question needs to be comprehensively addressed rather than continually deferred.

Syria is much more than one man and for a process to truly take the country out of the darkness, the question needs to be comprehensively addressed rather than continually deferred.


While Assad responded to the Vienna process with predictable rhetoric, saying there would be no solutions until “terrorism is defeated”, the truth is he is in weak position.

While he has already won one wartime “election” in 2014 with 88.7 percent of the vote, the standard refrain of his future being up to the Syrian people to decide is wearing thin. Indeed, what Vienna showed was that the world’s powers see the Syrian conflict as far too important to be left to the Syrians.

Remember that in addition to the human cost of the war the economy has shrunk in half, with a corresponding cost of living crisis. The Syria Report revealed this month that the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment has doubled the cost of the monthly subscription to its phone network as the government becomes increasingly desperate for new revenues.

Outsourcing of sovereignty

The cost of Assad remaining in power to date has seen huge outsourcing of sovereignty to other actors – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in particular. This places Assad potentially as the object rather than the subject of a political process, and for that to be both smart and effective it needs to be “Assad-proof” in charting a transition forward.

A war that has affected so many cannot hinge on one man.

A recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations highlighted the fact that Assad leaving power in Syria can take a lot of different forms. The classic scenario of the dictator fleeing the country or being hunted down and imprisoned or killed may be the options that people immediately associate with, but the report suggests that enshrining the devolution of power both vertically and horizontally within the stages of the Vienna process could be a smart way of addressing the Assad dilemma. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad [AP]
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad [AP]

What this means in practice is that power moves from the presidency to the Syrian parliament and judiciary, and that far more regional power and autonomy is enshrined in the constitutional agreements on the horizon.

It will mean that Assad’s exit won’t be as sharp and as sudden as many would prefer, but that kind of compromise and potential trust built by the parties within the political discussions could mean that his exit becomes more of a unifying rather than a divisive process for the country.

There can be no illusions as to the difficulties and immense challenge of the benchmarks and expectations of the Vienna process.

So much hatred, distrust and anger have been unleashed within the space of five years to expect anything else. However, unless the issue of Assad’s future is tackled early on with great care and political imagination, the process may find itself stillborn.  

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.