Al-Assad must go, but is he going?

Al-Assad must go, but is he going?

To be frank, the Istanbul conference on Syria was more successful than had been thought possible. The 27-paragraph concluding statement of the “Friends of the Syrian People” group, now consisting of 83 countries, sent strong messages not only to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus but to all Syrian people, including the members of the army and intelligence. The Friends call on Syrian officers ‘not to obey unlawful orders targeting’ their own people.

The Istanbul conference has also recognized the Syrian National Council (SNC) as ‘a legitimate representative of all Syrians.’ This wording is important. It is considered ‘a legitimate representative,’ which could be considered weaker than previously thought, but of ‘all Syrians,’ rather than only the opposition, which is stronger than expected. Plus, the statement designates the SNC as ‘the umbrella organization’ under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering.

The establishment of two working groups, a Sanctions Working Group and a Working Group on Economic Recovery and Development, shows that the “Friends” group is determined to proceed toward an action plan regarding the future of Syria. That is also obvious from the statement, which says that the Kofi Annan plan will not remain valid forever. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s expression of concern in his welcoming speech, about the possibiilty that the Annan plan may be abused by al-Assad to steal time, seems to be shared by others. That will not make Russia and China, who decided not to join the conference, very happy, as the two countries support the Assad regime despite lip service about the rights of the Syrian opposition under attack.

But the two most solid parts of the whole statement can be seen in this rather short sentence: “Therefore, the regime will be judged by its deeds rather than its promises.” The remark is endorsed by the support given to the documentation of the human rights violations and “atrocities” committed by the Syrian regime. That is not only in line with the “name and shame” rhetoric voiced by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but in line with the support vowed for “legitimate measures taken by the Syrian population to protect themselves.” This is almost a reference to the 51st Article of the United Nations charter which opens the way to the use of force in cases of self defense.

That reference may not make Russia very happy, but as al-Assad declines to fulfill the needs of the Annan plan he accepted, the room for Moscow to maneuver is growing narrow. The “Friends” meeting in Istanbul tells us in a way that al-Assad must move toward an end to the civil war in Syria, without telling us how. It is pretty clear from his practice so far that al-Assad is going to do whatever he can to stay in power.

The Sanctions Working Group meeting in Paris will therefore be very important, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is likely do whatever is possible to make it more productive than the Istanbul one.