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US and Russia Agree Syrian Political Transition Necessary - but what about Assad?

Galvanised by the extremist attacks in Paris and Beirut, the 20 state and international organisation representatives who make up the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) have formulated their most concrete plan for ending Syria’s civil war.

Representing the ISSG, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stood together in Vienna one day after the Paris attacks to say that the recent despicable events, along with the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula and the bombing in Ankara, had heightened the urgency "to make progress and to help resolve the crises."

As a result of the ISSG plan, the Syrian government and opposition representatives will be expected to meet in formal negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, before 1 January 2016.

The plan goes on to outline that, following negotiations, a ceasefire between the Syrian government, opposition forces and their respective backers should come into effect by May 2016 (targeting designated terrorist organisations will continue), allowing a new state constitution to be drafted. By May 2017, UN administered free elections will take place in an effort to herald in an inclusive, non-sectarian government and end the civil unrest.

Ending the Syrian conflict is seen as integral to dismantling the hold that extremist groups such as Daesh (ISIS) have on swathes of land in the weakened, sectarian nation and neighbouring Iraq. Kerry assured the audience in Vienna that the goal is to ensure these groups “are deprived of a single kilometre in which to hide” through strong state governance.

However, while the US and Russia agree that political stability is requisite for fighting extremism in Syria, they remain at odds about the role that President Assad will play in future political discussions and transition.

The US maintains that successfully reshaping Syria’s political landscape and bringing stability to the state will only be possible without the involvement of Assad’s minority Alawite regime. Kerry stated this is not merely a case of “some inappropriate dictate by world powers that said Assad has to go” but because “practically speaking, you cannot stop those people who feel aggrieved from fighting against Assad.” Further, Kerry asserted that even if Assad were to stay, there is absolutely no way he could regain legitimacy as leader of a peaceful Syria given his record of driving the nation through a filthy war rife with chemical weapon use, human rights abuse, torture and displacement.

Conversely, Russia is allied with Assad and believes that no political transformation can occur without Assad’s involvement and advocates respect for the “sovereignty and goals of the Syrian government.” Further, Lavrov states that Daesh will go about “creating this so-called caliphate regardless of the attitude that anyone has towards Bashar Assad.” As such, Russia has offered to work with the US-led coalition on eradicating Daesh, if they agree to offer Assad a seat at the table for subsequent talks. As far as Russia is concerned, disagreement over Assad’s role as Syrian President is subordinate to the collective need to eliminate extremism.

For the time being, it seems that both the US and Russia will stand their respective ground. US State Department spokesperson John Kirby said on Friday that “it’s inconsistent with the goals of the US-led coalition, which is to defeat Daesh, if you’re also propping up the Assad regime”, maintaining that Assad’s removal is not “secondary” to their mission as Lavrov suggests, but central to defeating extremism through stability in Syria.

This stalemate may mean that the promise of ISSG’s plan to bring about political reform in Syria will remain unfulfilled.

Sophie Wilson is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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Image credit: Wikimedia

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