US and Russia consider Syria peace plan that leaves Assad in power

Meanwhile, monitors reveal 'unprecedented' multicountry plan to remove chemical weapons from Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a recent television appearance.
SANA handout/Reuters

Western nations have confirmed the Syrian opposition's worst fears by indicating that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration, opposition sources told Reuters.

The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London last week, was prompted by the rise of Al-Qaeda and other hard-line groups among the vast and disjointed anti-Assad movement, the sources told Reuters. 

Most recently, a powerful coalition of these fighters took over a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA), prompting the United States and U.K. to cut off aid to the FSA in northern Syria.

"Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue," said one senior coalition member who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia.

Noting the possibility of Assad holding a presidential election when his term formally ends next year, the coalition member added: "Some do not even seem to mind if he runs again next year, forgetting he gassed his own people." He was referring to chemical weapons attacks around Syria that have killed thousands of people. The opposition and Assad’s government have blamed each other for the attacks.

The news could be crushing to Syria’s disparate opposition groups, who have increasingly fought each other in territorial and ideological disputes — and are unified essentially on their single shared demand that Assad be removed from power.

The shift in Western priorities, particularly on the parts of the U.S. and U.K., from removing Assad to combating hard-liners is causing divisions within international powers backing the nearly three-year-old revolt, according to diplomats and senior members of the coalition.

A diplomatic compromise on a transition could narrow Western differences with Russia, which has blocked United Nations action against Assad — but it could also widen a gap in approach with the opposition’s allies in the Middle East.

Syria’s civil war pits Assad and many Alawites — backed by Iran and its Shia Muslim allies — against Sunni Muslim opposition fighters supported by Turkey, Libya and Sunni Gulf Arab states.

Peace talks to end the violence, which has killed more than 126,000 people and displaced more than 8 million, are slated to start in Geneva on Jan. 22.

Moscow's 'red line'

The coalition has agreed to go to the talks while insisting on Assad's immediate removal, but a Middle East diplomat said opposition leaders should be "more creative" in their tactics.

"For Geneva to produce an arrangement acceptable to the United States and Russia, the opposition would have to accept taking part in a transitional administration with a strong Alawite presence," the diplomat said. "Assad may or may not stay as president, but at least he will have diminished powers."

A second member of the Syrian opposition, who is in touch with U.S. officials, said Washington and Moscow appeared to be working in tandem on a transitional framework in which Alawites would retain their dominant role in the army and security apparatus to safeguard their community against retribution and to rally a unified fight against Al-Qaeda with moderate opposition brigades, who would be invited to join a restructured military.

He criticized U.S. and European officials for continuing to indulge in rhetoric that says Assad has no future role to play in Syria, without spelling out how his rule will come to an end.

"Even if Assad is sidelined and a Sunni heads a transitional authority, he would have no power because neither Washington nor Moscow appears to want to end the Alawite control over the military and security apparatus," he said.

Aafak Ahmad, a former Syrian intelligence official who defected to the rebels two years ago and is in contact with U.S. and Russian officials, said Moscow wanted an Alawite to lead the military in any transition.

"Russia is not sticking to Assad, but the red line for Moscow is the preservation of the Syrian army," he said. "It realizes that, with five decades' experience in the army and security, the Alawites are best placed to fight Islamist militants.”

Chemical cleanup

Meanwhile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is working to transport the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpiles out of the country to be destroyed, announced that Russian armored trucks will help take the weapons out of the country, tracked by U.S. satellite equipment and Chinese surveillance cameras.

The OPCW unveiled the unprecedented plan in a report from its executive council published Wednesday.

Despite delays, the operation aims to be completed by mid-2014, although Syria's most dangerous chemicals must be destroyed by March 31.

Russia will also provide sailors and naval vessels to secure cargo operations at Latakia and within Syrian territorial waters.

The chemicals will be destroyed aboard a specially adapted U.S. ship because they are too dangerous to import into any country. There is no agreement yet on where the ship will anchor while the work is carried out.

A U.S.-Russia deal for Syria to surrender its chemical arsenal narrowly averted U.S. airstrikes on the Assad regime, after Washington said 1,400 people were gassed in an opposition-held area near Damascus in August.

Many feel that Assad’s cooperation on the disposal of his vast chemical weapons stockpiles has painted him as a partner to international powers wrangling for a solution to the crisis in Syria, and that it may even keep him in power.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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