x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Transition plan in Syria forges a new consensus

The consensus of Arab states is now that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad must begin a transitional process. The question is only how to make that happen.

The Arab League's decision to call for a national unity government to steer a transition towards democracy in Syria is, by many accounts, a moral victory for protesters.

According to the plan, President Bashar Al Assad must delegate authority to his deputy to form a government within two months. That government would then draft a new constitution and prepare free parliamentary and presidential elections.

That scenario, of course, is highly unlikely in that timetable. As expected, the Syrian regime categorically rejected the plan, describing it as "violation of the national sovereignty". It is hard to imagine Mr Al Assad ceding power under almost any circumstances after the bloodshed of recent months.

Arab states seem to have realised that Damascus believes only in tank-borne solutions. With the exceptions of Lebanon and Algeria, Arab countries have finally backed a plan that bypasses Mr Al Assad. The plan might not work, but it is an important step out of the impasse.

There were two options for the Arab states on Sunday: either refer the case to the Security Council or merely extend the observer mission. The latter would have been a failure because the observer mission has become almost irrelevant. By now it is clear that Damascus refuses to take any meaningful steps to curb the violence.

But a quick UNSC referral would have taken the issue back to square one, with countries divided over how to act. Most Arab countries, not to mention Russia, are opposed to military intervention.

Sunday's decisions, on the other hand, redefines the argument for future action against the regime. The consensus of Arab states is now that Mr Al Assad must begin a transitional process to leave. The question is only how to make that happen.

Critics of the regime in Damascus might have taken this for granted, but for the Arab League to take a clear position - Mr Al Assad must leave, and Syria embark on a political transition - is a stronger step than many expected.

For the opposition in the Syrian National Council, the ideal move would have been to refer the case to the Security Council. And, as Qatar foreign minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani said on Sunday, the case will be referred to the Security Council if Damascus rejects the plan. That should be all but inevitable now.

The consensus is clear that Mr Al Assad must leave. The Arab League must now focus on exerting pressure either directly, through sanctions and diplomatic efforts, or at the Security Council.