Kerry plans to persuade Assad to hand over power


Ahead of his first visit to the region as the US’s secretary of state, John Kerry has said he plans to put forward proposals to persuade Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to agree to step down. “My goal is to change his calculation,” he said.

Mr Kerry’s mission fits that of US president Barack Obama’s as outlined in his state of the union address: “We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.” This rules out those with sectarian or ethnic agendas, such as fundamentalist jihadis with a pan-Islamic agenda.

Meanwhile, Qatar, chief backer of the opposition, continues to pile pressure on the international community to give the opposition National Coalition full diplomatic status by handing over the Syrian embassy in Doha to it. While the coalition has dispatched envoys to Britain and France, it has not got ambassador status even though it is accepted as a “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

Qatar has been in the vanguard of the struggle against Mr Assad despite his once close friendship with the emirate’s ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. The sheikh appears to believe Qatar has adopted a win-win policy by supporting political opposition and jihadis.

Joined forces

However, fearing jihadi political ascendancy, the US and its western and Arab allies, which support the opposition coalition and Free Syrian Army rebels, and Russia and Iran, which back the government, have joined forces to press for negotiation. Their aim is to pre-empt a jihadi victory that could fracture Syria, accelerate a mass exodus, and destabilise the region.

Consequently, the opposition and government are proposing and withdrawing duelling proposals to see who will concede. The match began at the end of last month when coalition president Moaz al-Khatib braved criticism from colleagues by suggesting conditional dialogue, which is rejected by hardliners. According to the Guardian, Syrian reconciliation minister Ali Haidar replied with an offer to go to Geneva to discuss “preparations for national dialogue” while rejecting talks designed “to hand power from one side to another”.

However, Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad retracted Mr Haidar’s initiative by inviting Mr Khatib to attend, without conditions, government talks in Damascus. He also said Mr Assad should “preside over the resolution of the crisis”, a notion dismissed by the opposition.

Subsequently, opposition spokesman Khaled Saleh said the government had rejected Mr Khatib’s initiative by not agreeing to terms for the talks. Since Mr Khatib has not dropped the initiative, it remains in play. He and Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem have been invited to Moscow for discussions.

On the ground, government forces have consolidated control over Homs and people have begun returning home. Rebels have taken over military bases, an oil field and a dam that supplies power and water to the northeast. But neither side can defeat the other.

The balance of forces and weaponry means the stale- mate could continue for many months with advantage shifting from one side to the other while the country’s cities are ground to dust and hundreds of Syrians lose their lives daily.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has urged the security council to take unified action as an estimated 70,000 have already died and “tens of thousands of civilian lives are threatened” by the conflict.