Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 15 withdrawal of the majority of his troops from Syria was a serious nudge for Bashar al-Assad to either start taking U.N.-brokered peace negotiations in earnest or risk losing his closest military ally.
And while the latest round of peace talks did not render much in the way of progress in finding a peaceful resolution to the five-year-old Syrian civil war that has led to the deaths of more than 250,000 people and created the worst global refugee crisis in modern history, the mere fact that they did not end in a Syrian walkout was a good sign that Assad got the message.
But although the latest discussions encompassed a number of crucial topics such as prisoner releases, institutional reform, refugee repatriation, the need for a secular state and Syria’s territorial integrity, they did not address the obvious elephant in the room: the issue of Assad’s political exodus.
The reason that no one wanted to bring up the subject was obvious: The United States, Europe, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have steadfastly maintained that there can be no resolution to the Syrian crisis as long as Assad remains in power. Damascus and Moscow, on the other hand, contend that Assad is the legitimate, duly-elected president of Syria and that there can be no justification for his ouster by foreign parties.
Neither side is willing to budge on this divisive issue, leaving the real meat of the negotiations at a diplomatic deadlock.
On the upside, the fragile Feb. 27 ceasefire that took place before the last round of talks began seems to be holding despite occasional incidences of violence and the exemption of terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida.
On the downside, the talks amount to little more than diplomatic window dressing as long as negotiators continue to pussyfoot around the subject of Assad’s departure, immediate or eventual.
Simply put: The Syria problem boils down to the Assad problem.
Negotiators have set April 9 as the target date for peace discussions to resume, and hopefully, there will be a little more give and take on both sides when this key sticking point comes to the table … if it comes to the table.
But in order to reach a lasting solution, both sides are going to have to accept something less than what they really want.
That could translate into a compromise that would entail a friable power-sharing across Syria or accepting Assad’s seven-year term of office (he was elected in 2014, so we are looking at 2021 as his official exit date), or at least letting him stay until August 2017, when new elections are contemplated.
None of those prospects is particularly palatable for the West, but the alternative is another stalemate in the negotiations.
And any baby step in the right direction is preferable to another five years of war in Syria.
Thérèse Margolis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org