The notion first surfaced on Syrian social media, then from a report in Foreign Policy magazine, that a new transitional government could be hammered out at a conference in Doha next week. Then on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton practically confirmed it with calls to overhaul Syria’s opposition leadership, the Syrian National Council, and replace it with a more unified front.
The name floating as its potential leader: Riad Seif, a businessman and former Member of Parliament who spent six years in jail after signing the Damascus Declaration, a pro-democracy manifesto, in 2005.
Seif is widely admired for bravely criticizing the Assad regime and famously earned a prison sentence for raising questions about a mobile phone license that was awarded to Rami Makhlouf, Bashar Al Assad’s powerful cousin. In 2011, after a his latest stint in prison, Seif joined protests against the Assad regime at funerals in Damascus. He was also one of a handful of openly-named members of the SNC living inside Syria, a dangerous move for any political dissidents living in Syria. Apparently in punishment, Seif was then beaten up by regime thugs on October 7, 2011. (Fellow Damascus Declaration signatory and SNC member Mashaal Tammo was assassinated that day).
“I think [Riad Seif] is a name many people would welcome,” says Sami Moubayed, a political analyst based between Beirut and Damascus. “He has the nationalist credentials, he was in and out of jail…and he’s a former industrialist, so he’d have some support from the business community.”
Moubayed says that even with the failure of the Eid al Adha ceasefire and the fierce fighting on the ground, there’s enough diplomatic rumbling to give people hope. He calls it the “talk of the town” in Damasacus, the push toward a transitional government, as it revives a plan discussed at a conference in Geneva earlier this year.
But that plan might also mean Assad stays in place, through a slow political process that’s fraught with fighting. A transition plan for Syria would have to satisfy the conditions of Russia, China, and Iran, or else they wouldn’t throw their influence behind making it work.
“If [the transition plan] happens…then the Russians would agree to have Assad stay until the elections until 2014,” says Moubayed.
That’s not to say a diplomatic solution would necessarily stick on the ground. For all the diplomatic maneuvering outside of Syria, the battle between rebels and regime soldiers appears likely to churn on.
On Tuesday, one rebel commander leading the siege of a government checkpoint in the Al Leiramoun district of Aleppo, said he would continue to fight until the rebels take control. When asked in a YouTube interview if they would stop fighting, given a ceasefire or transition deal, the commander said his rebels won’t stop until “we kill this butcher” – referencing Assad.
He said also said he was surprised by the perseverance of soldiers who have shunned calls to defect or surrender. He said they would rather keep fighting for Bashar Al Assad who “is ready to destroy the country to remain in power.”