World powers agreed yesterday on a plan for a Syrian transition government that doesn’t directly address the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
The parties altered a draft agreement proposed by Kofi Annan, the envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, after Russia objected to language that would prohibit Assad and members of his inner circle from being part of a transitional government. The document also added a Russia-backed provision opposing “further militarization of the conflict,” alluding to Arab nations’ shipments of arms to the opposition.
International efforts to mediate a peace deal have stumbled over whether Assad must leave power before a transition can begin. The communique from foreign ministers in Geneva -- which declares a “firm timetable” for actions without any dates or deadlines -- may draw scrutiny over whether the U.S. and allies France and the U.K yielded too much to get a transition “road map” embraced by Russia and China.
“As it reads, it seems Washington has made a major concession in that Assad could stay on,” Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “It’s unclear how Assad could be present and create the ‘neutral environment’ outlined in the agreement.”
The Geneva meeting was attended by foreign ministers of the five permanent UN Security Council members -- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- as well as Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq. Also present were UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and officials from the European Union and Arab League.
Their document calls on “all parties” to cease violence in order to begin a “Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
At least 104 people were killed in clashes yesterday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, adding to the more than 10,000 deaths estimated by the UN since the conflict began 16 months ago. The U.S. blames Assad for much of the bloodshed, while the Syrian regime blames “terrorists,” as it calls rebel fighters.
Before yesterday’s meeting, Annan’s draft had said that a new government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”
The revised paragraph said the government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”
At a news conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied that the U.S. yielded to Russia’s demands for language that may give Assad leverage to retain power.
The U.S. supported Annan’s original text “but we agreed to some changes that we did not believe affected the substance because, frankly, we read the results to be the same,” she said. “Assad will still have to go. He will never pass the ‘mutual consent’ test, given the blood on his hands.”
Annan made the same point. It’s unlikely Syrians would “select people with blood on their hands to lead them,” he said, saying a Syrian solution requires “clear, irreversible steps.”
Annan said his next step is to engage with all the parties in Syria and that a UN monitoring team, sidelined by threats and violence, will resume its activity when possible. He said he expects to see “real progress” within a year.
It wasn’t clear how Annan intends to achieve “mutual consent” for a transitional leadership excluding Assad in that the wording also gives Assad a veto over its makeup. The opposition previously has rejected moves to participate in a government in which Assad retains power.
Clinton said it is incumbent on Russia and China “to show Assad the writing on the wall.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the document doesn’t imply that Assad must go and said Russia will continue to block efforts in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria to force him out. He defended Russia supplying anti-aircraft weapons to the regime while saying those shipping arms to rebel forces are stoking violence.
Even as Lavrov said Russia will press the Syrian government to abide by Annan’s peace plan, his comments reflected the gulf between Russia and the Western and Arab nations seeking Assad’s downfall.
The U.S., the U.K. and France will take the document to a July 6 Paris meeting of the Friends of Syria, the international group supporting the Syrian opposition, and will continue working in the UN Security Council to mandate sanctions, Clinton said. The U.S. is stepping up efforts to get food, drugs and emergency relief to Syrians, she said.
“As long as Assad continues to wage war against the Syrian people -- and he himself now calls this a war -- the international community must keep ratcheting up the pressure on the regime to halt the violence and do more to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in need,” Clinton said.