x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

There can be no deal for Assad to keep power

For the majority of Syrians, any government led by Bashar Al Assad or his cronies would be illegitimate

Locked in his presidential palace, Bashar Al Assad is less and less able to understand what is happening in the country he used to rule. In a defiant weekend interview, he refused to step down, implied that he would contest the presidential elections long scheduled for next year and poured cold water on the idea that a conference this month, organised by the United States and Russia, could end the conflict.

"Believing that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground is unreal," he said. On this point, Mr Al Assad is right, but not in the way he thinks. The real terrorists in this conflict are not the rebels, who took up arms to defend their initially peaceful uprising. The terror comes from the dwindling but deadly clique of Alawite generals and their thugs, led by the president, who are raining death on civilians and rebel fighters indiscriminately.

The chief failing of any attempt to negotiate with Mr Al Assad - for example, offering him a way to lead a transition to democracy before next year's election - is that it would restore to him and his regime, in some measure, the legitimacy they have forfeited.

Imagining that the majority of Syrians would accept a political accommodation with the Assad regime ignores the past two years of agony, and the preceding 40 years of ruthless Assad family rule.

Yet the US-Russian conference on Syria next month is a quest for consensus on a political transition, in which Mr Al Assad would go but the regime would survive, at least until new elections or institutions could be arranged. Mr Al Assad's weekend interview rules that out; buoyed by his army's recent successes, he has raised the stakes dramatically.

In any case, fair elections, under UN supervision for example, are impossible to envisage in a country with no central authority. Armed groups in de facto control of many areas would have no use for elections.

What the international community needs to understand is that at this stage there is no reason to believe that any significant group of Syrians, except Mr Al Assad's own Alawite kinsmen and the ruling elite itself, will have anything more to do with him.

Any settlement, electoral or other, will be intolerable to Syrians if it encompasses the slightest possibility that Mr Al Assad or one of his figureheads could continue as president.

To be sure, Mr Al Assad seems determined to finish the ruin of the country rather than release his grip on it. If military stalemate persists, the death toll and the devastation can only increase. But the Syrian people have made it clear that Bashar Al Assad is no longer their president.