Best of 2016: US, Russia Touch on ‘Political Quotas’, Three Vice Presidents and ‘Protocol Powers’

Unannounced negotiations are being held between American and Russian representatives to draft constitutional and political principles for a solution built on the principle of “political quotas” close to “the moderate Lebanese model”

The latest proposals conveyed by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura to the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee are to assign President Bashar al-Assad three presidential deputies for military, security and financial affairs, in addition to forming a government from “state loyalists and others (that is, opposition) and independents.” This pitch has angered the Committee, which said it had only delivered the international envoy a document – of which al-Hayat obtained a copy – that included eight questions focusing on the formation of the transitional authority and the acceleration of this after the passing of half the proposed deadline, which was six months according to UN resolution 2254.

Meanwhile, the US president’s representative for Middle Eastern affairs in the White House, Robert Malley, and the representative for the Russian president to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, intensified talks behind closed doors in Geneva to search for a formula for “political quotas” that Obama might bring with him during his foreign tour starting on Wednesday before “presenting it” to representatives of the regime and a “select list” of Syrian opposition members who accept a political solution.

The day before yesterday in Geneva, de Mistura met a government delegation headed by top regime negotiator Dr. Bashar al-Jaafari, who gave his notes on the statement of principles which de Mistura announced at the end of his last visit, which included 12 items for a political solution. Damascus objected fundamentally to discussing de Mistura’s document – which reflected his understanding of the Syrian parties’ positions about the political transition – given that the government views this as unconstitutional. For that reason, the government delegation communicated Damascus’s readiness to begin a political process built on the current constitution of the year 2012, which includes forming a broad government containing “those loyal to the state, and others, and independents.” This government would then carry out the implementation of the two articles of resolution 2254 that relate to drafting a new constitution and running elections within 18 months. Jaafari, who is keen to be precise and who believes presenting documents means becoming implicated in negotiations around a political transition, asked de Mistura to move the opposition opinion from his comments on the international document, in addition to the need to adhere to “fighting terrorism” and “supporting the Syrian army,” and halting the supply and support of “terrorists.”

But the surprise was in the international envoy’s meeting with the High Negotiations Committee, headed by the General Asaad al-Zouabi, as the international envoy conveyed “a proposal, not my personal proposal” to the opposition that included appointing Assad three vice presidents for military, security and financial affairs, in accordance with the current constitution, which allows the president to appoint one or more deputies and define each of their powers.

In article 91 of the current constitution, the president of the republic is given the right to “name one or more deputies, and delegate them some of his powers.” The following article provides that “if a temporary obstacle makes the president unable to discharge his duties, they are delegated to the vice president of the republic.” Article 93 provides that “in the case of a vacancy in the presidency or his permanent disability to perform his duties, his duties are temporarily assumed by the first vice president for a period not exceeding 90 days from the date of the vacancy of the presidency, during which time new presidential elections will be held. In the event the president’s position becomes vacant and he has no deputy, his duties will be assumed temporarily by the prime minister for a period not exceeding 90 days from the date of the vacancy, during which time new presidential elections will be held.”

Reports conflicted about the origin of de Mistura’s proposal with the Committee the day before yesterday. It was said that the proposal came from Damascus after reports about the appointment of a high-level security figure to the position of vice president, while others said the proposal came from Moscow, which has told Washington more than once that “deposing Assad means a collapse of institutions, in addition to Iran rejecting it completely.” A Russian official was quoted as suggesting five vice presidents be appointed, forming a presidential council, a proposal which resembles the initiative conveyed by the Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi to Damascus that a mixed presidential council be formed including Assad.

The proposal was received with alarm by the Committee’s delegation, in addition to its alarm at the intensification of military operations near Aleppo and the hindering of humanitarian aid. The head of the Committee delegation, Zouabi, said “the regime sent a strong message to the effect that it does not want a political solution, but wants a military solution which will lead to the complete destruction of the country,” adding that the amendments the government delegation opposed in the political principles of the solution have demonstrated that Damascus is not serious about a political solution and that it is “cut off from reality.” The Committee began, after its general coordinator Riyad Hijab arrived, to raise the prospect of withdrawal, which drew interventions from the American envoy Michael Ratney to avoid that occurring. Hijab wrote on his Facebook page yesterday: “In Geneva we are discussing one thing only, and that is the formation of a transitional governing body without Assad.”

Eight Questions

In return, Zouabi gave the international envoy a two-page document, of which al-Hayat obtained a copy. It included eight questions about the period of resolution 2254’s implementation, especially relating to the political and humanitarian dimensions and ending military operations. It added: “The Committee submitted a paper outlining the principles of a political solution and has still not received any response, despite our continued requests. The committee submitted a note outlining the executive framework for a transitional period and has not received any response. What are the operational steps to begin the political transition according to the Geneva declaration and international resolution 2118, which is considered the legal basis and authority for the negotiations process?” It concluded in the eighth item: “According to item 2254 which is considered the basis of the ongoing political process now, it is stated that establishing the ruling governing body should be completed within six months. Since then more than three months have passed. Will the regime agree to seriously enter this process and commit to establishing a ruling body within the remaining period of the deadline?” The Committee accompanied the document with two annexes about violations of the truce and about besieged areas.

In response to the focus of the government delegation on a broad government in accordance with the current constitution in order to avoid a constitutional or political vacuum, the Committee has clung to another political sequence beginning with the formation of a transitional body drafting a new constitution. De Mistura justified the proposal to appoint three deputies to Assad with the need to bridge the gap between the government and opposition positions. The Committee’s spokesman Salem al-Muslat told Reuters that the Committee was ready to divide the seats in the transitional ruling body with members of the Syrian government and diplomats and technocrats “on the condition President Assad resigns from power and the time has come to discuss the political transition.” Russian media meanwhile quoted the Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi saying that “Assad’s future is not negotiable, not in Geneva, and not in any other place. Assad’s destiny must be decided by the Syrian people within the framework of a democratic process, and it will not be discussed by any other party,” noting that Assad indicated two weeks ago for the first time his readiness to hold early presidential elections.

Not far from the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, unannounced negotiations are being held between representatives of the American and Russian presidents to make a deal for the political solution in Syria and draft constitutional and political principles for a solution built on the principle of “political quotas” close to “the moderate Lebanese model”, according to a Western official. He told al-Hayat that the negotiations are dealing with sharing power between Assad and the opposition related to executive, military, security, legislative, judicial and protocol-related authorities, noting that the Middle East official in the White House, Robert Malley, will return to Washington to inform Obama about the results of the negotiations with the Russian presidential envoy. The American president meanwhile is presenting proposals to America’s regional and international allies during his visit to the Gulf and London, in the hope of beginning a settlement before America enters “election torpor” this coming summer.

It is expected the Russians will brief the head of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qasem Soleimani on its vision for the Syrian solution, at a time when Tehran favors supporting regime military forces, especially in the battle to besiege Aleppo. The official said: “Iran announced that regular troops were being sent to Aleppo in order to say that there would be no solution without Iran’s agreement.”

If a Russian-American understanding occurs and support of allies is obtained, Washington and Moscow will try to formulate this in constitutional principles and a political deal, and then choose a list of opposition members who accept a political solution and gather them with the government delegation in the coming round, or what is known as “Geneva 4”, which will be different from the previous rounds. This will raise questions upon de Mistura’s resumption of his talks with the Syrian parties this coming week.

This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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