Saturday, January 30, 2016

"White House won't rule out path for Assad's re-election"

First up, the Washington Examiner:
The White House on Friday would not rule out the possibility that a final Syrian political peace deal, if one could ever be reached, would include a re-election path for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

"The details are going to have to be worked out by the Syrian people, and that is entirely appropriate," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said during his daily briefing when asked whether a final deal could allow Assad to remain in power and run for re-election. "We're not dictating the outcomes, here. We need the Syrian people to engage on this."

After first boycotting the beginning of the talks early Friday, Syria's main opposition group agreed to travel to Geneva to the opening of preliminary meetings aimed at forging a political process that could end the bloody civil war that has killed an estimated 250,000 people. But the Syrian rebels said they wanted to discuss humanitarian issues before beginning the political negotiations.

The discussions that began Friday are considered only "proximity talks," the first step in an effort toward deeper negotiations to end the fighting in more than two years. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura invited both the Assad regime and an umbrella opposition group to Geneva for meetings with separate parties in different rooms.

After the High Negotiations Committee, the umbrella Syria opposition group, reversed course and agreed to attend the meetings, Kerry welcomed its "important" decision.

He then reiterated U.S. support for a previous U.N. commitment ensuring safe passage for opposition groups trying to provide "urgent humanitarian access for besieged areas of Syria."

"The United States further expects that both sides in these negotiations will participate in good faith and achieve early, measurable progress in the days ahead," Kerry said in a statement early Friday evening.

Syrian rebel groups are deeply concerned that the Obama administration is too close to the Iranians and Russians after reaching the nuclear deal with Tehran last year, and might cut them a bad deal that would include allowing Assad to run for re-election.

Speculative reports also surfaced this week that Secretary of State Kerry had threatened rebel leaders in Syria with yanking their funding if they did not come to the negotiating table....MORE
And from The Australian:

US may let Bashar al-Assad retain power, say Syrian rebels
The US has thrown Syria’s dictator a potential lifeline as it tries to push the squabbling sides in the conflict to begin peace talks, it was claimed yesterday.
Rebel negotiators said that US Secretary of State John Kerry had told them they might have to accept­ Bashar al-Assad as part of a future Syrian government of ­national unity.

That would mark a significant change in the US position. It has insisted Assad had to stand down while a transition administration ran the country before elections. A unity government could allow him to stand for re-election, with no set timetable for his depart­ure.

Rebel sources described Mr Kerry’s reversal — which it is claimed was outlined to Riyad Hijab, general co-ordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, and other delegates representing the Syrian opposition in Riyadh over the weekend — as a “scary retreat” that brought the US closer to the stance taken by Assad allies Iran and Russia­.

Syrian National Coalition president Khaled Khoja told CNN: “Kerry did not make any promises, nor did he put forward any initiatives.

“He has long been delivering messages similar to those drafted by Iran and Russia, which call for the establishment of a ‘national government’ and allowing Bashar al-Assad to stay in power and stand for re-election.”

Rebel sources added Mr Kerry implied that US support for them could ebb away if they failed to ­attend or scuppered the talks, saying they risked “losing friends”....MORE
 All of which gets very interesting if you obsess about this stuff and recall a story from last year in what may be the world's most difficult opinion polling situation, ORB International's work in Iraq and Syria last summer as reported by Global Research December 11th:

Bashar Al-Assad Has More Popular Support than the Western-Backed “Opposition”: Poll
In the view of Syrians, the country’s president, Bashar al Assad, and his ally, Iran, have more support than do the forces arrayed against him, according to a public opinion poll taken last summer by a research firm that is working with the US and British governments. [1]

The poll’s findings challenge the idea that Assad has lost legitimacy and that the opposition has broad support.

The survey, conducted by ORB International, a company which specializes in public opinion research in fragile and conflict environments, [2] found that 47 percent of Syrians believe that Assad has a positive influence in Syria, compared to only 35 percent for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and 26 percent for the Syrian Opposition Coalition
At the same time, more see Assad’s ally, Iran, as having a favorable influence (43%) than view the Arab Gulf States—which back the external opposition, including Al Nusra and ISIS—as affecting Syria favorably (37%).
The two Arab Gulf State-backed Al-Qaeda linked organizations command some degree of support in Syria, according to the poll. One-third believe Al-Nusra is having a positive influence, compared to one-fifth for ISIS, lower than the proportion of Syrians who see Assad’s influence in a positive light.
According to the poll, Assad has majority support in seven of 14 Syrian regions, and has approximately as much support in one, Aleppo, as do Al-Nusra and the FSA. ISIS has majority support in only one region, Al Raqua, the capital of its caliphate. Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, has majority support in Idlip and Al Quneitra as well as in Al Raqua. Support for the FSA is strong in Idlip, Al Quneitra and Daraa.

An in-country face-to-face ORB poll conducted in May 2014 arrived at similar conclusions. That poll found that more Syrians believe the Assad government best represents their interests and aspirations than believe the same about any of the opposition groups. [3]
The poll found that 35 percent of Syrians saw the Assad government as best representing them (20% chose the current government and 15% chose Bashar al-Assad). By comparison, the level of the support for the opposition forces was substantially weaker:
• Al-Nusra, 9%
• FSA, 9%
• “Genuine” rebels, 6%
• ISIS, 4%
• National Coalition/transitional government, 3%
The sum of support for the opposition forces, 31 percent, was less than the total support for Assad and his government.
Of significance is the weak support for the FSA and the “genuine” rebels, the alleged “moderates” of which British prime minister David Cameron has improbably claimed number as many 70,000 militants. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has pointed out that if the ranks of the moderates were this large, the Syrian Arab Army, which has lost 60,000 soldiers, mainly to ISIS and Al-Nusra, could hardly survive. Fisk estimates generously that “there are 700 active ‘moderate’ foot soldiers in Syria,” and concludes that “the figure may be nearer 70,” closer to their low level of popular support. [4]...MORE
Here's the BBC on ORB last September:
Iraq and Syria opinion poll - the world's most dangerous survey?

And the Washington Post's Sept. 15 story:
One in five Syrians say Islamic State is a good thing, poll says