Syria’s two highest-profile defectors have been hitting the diplomatic circuit. They’re lobbying foreign capitals in search of support for their candidacy as potential leaders of any future Syrian transitional government, whether arising peacefully through a political process or violently through a long war between the Free Syrian Army and government forces.
Manaf Tlass, a former brigade commander in the Syrian Republican Guard, arrived unannounced in Jordan on September 8 for private talks. According to political insiders, he met with senior Jordanian officials and possibly King Abdullah II as well, though anonymous official sources say he sat down with other Syrian military defectors in the kingdom. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who defected in early August, met the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, and the diplomatic adviser to the French president, Paul Jean-Ortiz, in Paris on September 19.
But attention is focused on the wrong people. The senior Syrian official to keep an eye on is the current Syrian vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, who has rarely been seen in public since July 2011. Some opposition figures privately view him as a suitable “president-in-waiting” based on Article 92 of Syria’s revised constitution, which provides for the vice president to assume power for an interim period of sixty days should the presidency fall vacant. Others argue that at seventy-three, Sharaa is too old, autocratic, and aloof to serve as interim president. But among opposition political circles inside Syria, he is emerging as a likely compromise candidate to head, or at least be part of, any transitional government.
A Syrian Joe Biden
Farouk al-Sharaa’s position cannot be analyzed properly without tracing the development of his career since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. From the outset he made it known to his close associates, as well as friends in the opposition, that he was opposed to the use of violence, especially after the Syrian Army was called into action in his native Deraa in April.
Sharaa is an old-school civilian Baathist more comfortable with soft power diplomacy than military might. Soft-spoken yet sharp, he has served under both President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, first as Syria’s ambassador to Rome in the early 1980s and then as minister of foreign affairs from 1984 to 2005. During the 1990s he also headed the Syrian delegation to most of the peace talks with Israel.
Lacking real decision making powers or a security brief in the current Syrian government, Sharaa has not been involved in the violent repression of the uprising, and for this reason some opposition figures were initially willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Former political prisoners Michel Kilo, Hassan Abdul Azim, and Aref Dalila, among others, have discussed ways of ending the violence and initiating a political process for a “soft landing” with him. On the other side of the conflict, Assad has largely trusted Sharaa, seeing something of a “Joe Biden quality” in him: an aging vice president who nicely complements, yet doesn’t really challenge, the popularity and authority of a young president.
Sidelining the Vice President
Sharaa’s status as an acceptable interlocutor for the Syrian opposition seemed confirmed when Assad appointed him to chair a National Dialogue Conference in July 2011. Sharaa, who is a member of the Regional Command of the Baath Party, opened by stating bluntly that one-party rule was no longer possible for Syria. Rotation of power was a must, he added, and called for the lifting of Article 8 of the constitution, which designated the Baath Party as the “leader of state and society.” Sharaa then said that Syrian officials were “naive” in their understanding of developments that were taking place around them following the outbreak of the Tunisian uprising in December 2010.
Effectively, he touched upon every topic on the Syrian opposition’s agenda, as of July 2011.
Sharaa’s “democracy speech” infuriated hardliners in the Baath Party, who lashed out at him in the official press. Soon, what appeared to be a systematic campaign to tarnish his reputation began. Hardliners in the party claimed he had used the conference to market himself politically, rather than defend the regime.
The backlash forced Sharaa into a yearlong informal political retirement, during which time he avoided media contact. He continued to head the weekly meeting of the Political Committee of the Baath Party, but was completely sidelined in all political and military decision making. Needless to say, none of the recommendations reached at the National Dialogue Conference were implemented.
The Arab League’s proposal of January 2012 that called on Assad to transfer his powers to his vice president—in the model of the Yemeni transition, which saw President Ali Abdullah Saleh hand the reins to Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi—was the kiss of near-death for Sharaa. The endorsement by the United Nations Security Council and some within the Syrian opposition only made matters worse for him.
The Americans too would in theory welcome Sharaa’s promotion. They have ten years’ worth of experience with him, so they know he is someone with whom they can do business. Indeed, U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, commended Sharaa in his book on the peace process, The Missing Peace, for having gone further at the Shepherdstown talks with Israel in January 2000 than Hafez al-Assad, by agreeing to joint Syrian-Israeli sovereignty over Lake Tiberias—a concession that was completely rejected by Assad the following March in Geneva at a summit meeting with President Bill Clinton.
The Syrian government flatly rejected the Arab League’s proposal. The Alawite community has rallied even more tightly around Assad in response to sectarian polarization and will not hear of replacing him. Meanwhile, hardliners in the Baath Party who were never fond of Sharaa regard him as an opportunist.
The aging vice president reappeared in public for the funeral of his longtime friend Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law who died in the bombing that killed four leading security officials in Damascus on July 18. Sharaa now appeared even more vulnerable; insiders claimed that without Shawkat’s protection, he was closer than ever to formal political retirement. At the end of August, the rumor spread that he had defected and left the country.
Far from retiring into obscurity or defecting, Sharaa made a statement on August 29 that sounded wholly unlike someone preparing himself for political obscurity. He welcomed the mission of the new joint United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and emphasized that violence needs to stop on all sides. He gave a nod to Kofi Annan’s six-point plan and the recommendations of the Geneva Conference on June 30, without going into detail. That plan, it must be remembered, called for a transitional governing body composed of members of the current Syrian government and opposition figures. This body would run the country in parallel with Assad for one year, during which time it would prepare for free parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in 2013. Sharaa made an open gesture toward Iran by emphasizing the need to include it in any effort to resolve the Syrian crisis, and welcomed the formation of a “Contact Group” composed of Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Noticeably, Sharaa did not mention Assad. Anyone familiar with how Syrian officials operate knows that the regime would be furious about a statement from any official, no matter how senior, suggesting his independence. “Who is Sharaa,” the leadership would object, “to welcome Brahimi or reach out directly to Iran?”
The official Syrian Arab News Agency and other government-associated media predictably observed a complete blackout on coverage of the statement. What was less predictable, however, was that no further measures have been taken against Sharaa. This has prompted speculation among opposition circles in Syria that a behind-the-scenes deal is in the making in which Sharaa will be put forward as interim president (given current circumstances, that remains a long shot) or at least as a leading member within the proposed transitional body.
This remains a matter of conjecture. But those close to Sharaa say he does not believe that the opposition will be able to assume power in Syria on its own. In his view, the transition depends on regime figures who can work with the opposition to run the country effectively. Sharaa was silent about the defection in August of his cousin Ya’rub, commander of the Damascus branch of Political Security—one of Syria’s most powerful intelligence agencies. And the former foreign minister’s back-channel connections to the Damascus-based opposition remain as strong as ever.
The spotlight remains on defectors such as Tlass and Hijab for the time being. But if circumstances arise that compel the regime and opposition to reach a compromise, then Sharaa is the candidate most likely to occupy center stage.