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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

With the opposition divided, Assad seeks to remain the dominant force

Riad Hijab feared Syria would end up like Yemen. It may, but not in the way he imagined, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Riad Hijab. Chesnot / Getty Images
Riad Hijab. Chesnot / Getty Images

It has been five years since Riad Hijab defected as prime minister of Syria and two since he was chosen to chair the Syrian opposition umbrella group the High Negotiations Committee. On Monday evening, he abruptly resigned, ahead of two crucial meetings of Syrian opposition groups, one in Riyadh and one in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi.

From initial reports, it appears Mr Hijab has not yet fully explained his reasons for resigning. But it is widely believed to hinge on the fate of Bashar Al Assad. The condition that Mr Al Assad leave before any political transition has been the sticking point for the UN-led negotiations. Yet in truth it had already become a moot point, mouthed by western governments and held tight by Syrians most committed to the revolution, but long buried beneath the rain of Russian bombs.

The biggest challenge that the HNC faced is that, in just two years, the ground shifted beneath their feet. Since Russia's entry into the Syrian civil war, the military balance has shifted back to the regime, and with it the balance of the political process.

Without military might to back up the Geneva process, there was little teeth to the endless negotiations. Contrast that with the Russian-sponsored “national dialogue” taking place this week. Not only has Russia used significant firepower in Syria to defend the regime, but it has explicitly threatened any Syrian groups that does not attend this week's conference. In the vastly weakened environment in which any opposition to Mr Al Assad now finds itself, that is not a risk many will be willing to take.

The Russian plan is gradually becoming clear. The idea of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue is that many different opposition groups are invited – 33 at the last count – in order to chart a path to elections in Syria. Those elections could result in Mr Al Assad stepping down, but only if he suffered a conclusive defeat. As Mr Al Assad well knows, that will not happen. There has been no point in Syria’s recent history, even during the last years of Hafez Al Assad, where a viable opposition candidate for president has existed. There is no candidate today.

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Three years ago, during the worst days of the Syrian civil war, I argued that, in a free and fair election, Bashar Al Assad would still win. That remains the case today. Despite the destruction, starvation and torture, there is no single candidate – not even a single group – who could win over sufficient sections of the population to win an election outright. That is without even factoring in the inevitable pressure on media outlets, the majority of whom are based in the Al Assad stronghold of Damascus, to promote the president at the expense of other candidates.

The Russian plan is that the Al Assad regime would remain the strongest force in the country, with other groups included, if not exactly for show, then in order to draw certain sections of the population into the political process. But Mr Al Assad's faction would remain the largest bloc.

If that sounds familiar, it is because another Arab leader stayed in power the same way for many years: Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Speaking last year at a conference in London, Mr Hijab warned that allowing Mr Al Assad even a small measure of movement would doom any Syrian transition. He gave the example of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.

Forced to step down from the presidency after Arab Spring protests in 2011, Mr Saleh remained in the country, avoided an asset-freeze, retained allies in the military and remained influential in the political party he founded and which dominated Yemen's parliament. Those four elements allowed Saleh to gradually rebuild influence, to the point where he could back the Houthi rebels and ride their coat-tails to Sanaa.

Mr Hijab feared the same thing would happen if Mr Al Assad was forced from power but remained influential inside Syria or within the ruling Baath Party.

That now seems a hopelessly optimistic scenario. Mr Al Assad out of power but still in party politics? It was difficult to imagine a year ago; it is the stuff of fantasy today.

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In fact, there is a Yemen analogy for Syria’s future, but it is a rather different one than Mr Hijab imagined. Instead, it is the one that existed in Yemen for two decades before the Arab Spring revolution. Mr Saleh, leading the party he founded, the General People's Congress (GPC), made alliances left and right, but always ensured the GPC remained dominant.

Indeed, in every Yemeni election since unification in 1990, Mr Saleh's GPC was the largest party. It remained so throughout the revolution, after he stepped down, and even to this day. By ensuring that the GPC remained the dominant party, smaller parties could be courted and, eventually, discarded. But Mr Saleh's position remained unassailable.

The trajectory of the Russian-sponsored dialogue seems to indicate that is the desired outcome, with the Al Assad regime and the Baath Party as primus inter pares, first among equals.

That situation, already enshrined in Syria's constitution with the Baath party guaranteed a “leading role” in government, will now be extended to negotiations over the future of the regime, with the number of groups taking part in the dialogue so wide that no conceivable grouping could out-flank the regime. A government of national unity, if it ever happened, would be presided over by Bashar Al Assad.

Don't expect it to work. Such an outcome, while it may temporarily keep the regime and its backers happy, will not resolve any of the underlying tensions in Syrian society. Rather than dissipating, they will be delayed. The 2011 eruption of anger, then, will simply be one more in a series of explosions, rather than, as the protesters hoped all those years ago, the beginning of a new relationship between citizen and state.

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