The removal of Assad from power is one of the key conditions for the Syrian opposition’s participation in the Geneva II peace talks, set to begin in mid-November.
The frustration and disappointment of the Syrian opposition have been further exacerbated by recent remarks made by Assad to the media on his determination to run for a new term, “based on the desire of the Syrian people.”
These fears have been exacerbated by accounts of leaks from diplomatic sources that there is a US-Russian proposal to extend Assad’s presidency until 2016.
According to the leaks, the proposal includes the postponement of presidential elections in Syria, scheduled for mid-2014.
Article 87, paragraph 2 of the Syrian Constitution, altered last year, stipulates: “If the term of the President of the Republic is complete but a new president is not yet elected, the existing President of the Republic continues to assume his duties until the new president is elected.”
International news outlets have reported that a British diplomatic source has made unverified claims that “Moscow and Washington have privately agreed to postpone Syrian presidential elections.” The source added that there might be “international political cover” that will allow the extension of Al-Assad’s mandate, in accordance with the revised Syrian constitution.
The US State Department has denied the claims, and stated that Al-Assad “should not even consider” staying in power.
Deputy Spokesman for the State Department, Marie Harf, said “it’s really unfathomable to think that the leader of a regime that has slaughtered over 100,000 of its own people, gassed to death over 1,400 on August 21st, would even contemplate running in an election to lead the country.
“The Syrian people have been clear about what they want, and we have been clear that we will support them. And if he really were to follow the wishes of the Syrian people, he would go,” she added.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has previously said that Al-Assad has not explicitly demonstrated a commitment to run for the next election and this will aid the transitional process in Syria.
However, at a recent press conference, Harf was asked to comment on Assad’s more recent remarks to a Turkish newspaper that he will be putting himself forward as a candidate in the next election.
“If you just look at the opposition, the number of people that have joined the opposition across the country to fight and organize against the Assad regime—look, it’s been clear that he’s lost legitimacy and must go and that the trend is moving in that direction” said Harf.
When asked whether the upcoming Geneva II conference will reconcile the demands of the Al-Assad regime with the demands of the Syrian opposition regarding the extension of Assad’s term, Harf said: “we believe that the path forward here politically is for a Geneva 2 process based on the Geneva 1 communique to lead to a political transition, separate and apart from any supposedly scheduled election that Assad may or may not decide he wants to run in.”
Abdulbaset Sieda, the former President of the Syrian National Council and co-founder of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, said that the Syrian opposition has been informed of these alleged agreements between Moscow and Washington.
He did not rule out claims made by sources to Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Syrian regime is seeking to take advantage of the noticeably soft approach of the international community at the UN, even after it used chemical weapons. The regime is trying to take advantage of the opportunity of postponing elections, as long as the situation remains volatile.”
In Sieda’s view, Assad’s remarks and the claims made from leaked sources regarding his survival in power “are not the only new tactics on the part of the Syrian regime.”
“Everyone knows that Al-Assad’s father [Hafez Al-Asssad] imposed the constitution in an arbitrary manner and he has [Bashar Al-Assad] continued to rule in the same manner in order to fulfil the regime’s ‘aspirations’,” he added. The renewed emphasis on the fact that “the opposition will not presently recognise the legitimacy of a leader does not guarantee Al-Assad’s departure from power.”
In his interview on Friday with Turkey’s Halk TV news channel, Assad underlined that “he would not hesitate to run for the upcoming presidential elections if this is the desire of the Syrian people.”
Assad has reportedly informed a number of groups within his regime that he will not step down from office before the expiration of his presidential term. He has also hinted that he intends to stand at the next election, which has also been put forward by Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem and Minister of Information Omran Al-Zoubi. The ministers have suggested that there is a strong possibility of Al-Assad nominating himself for a third term.
However, Sieda insisted that “we believe that the revolution is confronting a regime that is losing legitimacy, which is not a dispute about the legitimacy of its origin.”
He expressed his regret for the continuation of the regime “which the international community views with…negativity.”
“We have not seen any effective international action for resolving the Syrian crisis, despite the rhetoric by several states that eludes otherwise, especially the United States,” he added.
He further observed that “the international community currently makes excuses due to several factions that they deem a threat to their own security, instead of focusing on the accountability of the Syrian regime. All that is said with regards to creating the right atmosphere for the transition of a new government is not clearly followed through.”
According to the leaked claims, the US-Russia plan to extend Assad’s presidency was influenced by a number of different factors, mainly due to both Assad’s agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons and, following the growing influence of militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, Assad’s crackdown on fundamentalist groups.
Sieda said “confronting fundamentalist groups and agreeing to destroy chemical weapons are only hollow and empty excuses.”
“There is no way that these actions can justify the destruction of the state and the murder of Syrians, as part of investing in Syria’s future,” he stressed. “All outlets similarly disregard Syrian beliefs. They distract Syrians from finding a solution, at a time when there are no indicators or signs as to the nature of future solution.”
Sieda concluded that “we [Syrians] have lost hope in the international community following the US-Russia deal on chemical weapons. The more they accommodate the regime, the more disillusioned we become because this signals a retreat of the revolution against the Assad regime.”