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Syria's Next Election: A Practical Path Forward

Bassam Barabandi, Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff

Politics, Diplomacy, Middle East

An ambitious timeline for transition in the war-torn country is possible. 

Negotiations between the Syrian opposition and governing regime start in just a few days. The challenges are numerous and many analysts are quick to proclaim the process already dead. Despite the momentum of the Vienna process, a myriad of factors continues to make Syria a complicated case: a messy situation on the battlefield, an unwillingness to compromise, political dynamics among the opposition, hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia’s backing of Assad—take your pick.

While somewhat less than enthused by the framework set out by the UN Security Council resolution, which leaves Assad in power, Syrian opposition groups are meeting in Riyadh to prepare for negotiations. Apart from selecting members of their negotiation committee, the opposition groups are discussing their negotiation goals, including principles for political reform—reform which cannot include Assad as head of any transitional government. This is a tall order, which was once supported by the international community but apparently abandoned in the face of reality on the ground.

The focus on Assad’s role (or lack thereof) in a transitional government is understandable. Nevertheless, it might be pragmatic to review the timeline of transition as presently framed and propose a slightly different approach. With or without Assad, in the case of successful negotiations and an even somewhat effective ceasefire, a genuine deal will include constitutional reform and elections.

Somewhat ambitiously, Vienna produced a statement with a basic framework for political reform and elections, which was later endorsed by a Security Council resolution. The framework includes the formation of a transitional government and a process for drafting a new constitution within six months of the start of negotiations, followed by a referendum for which there is no specified deadline. Elections are to be held within eighteen months, in accordance with international standards, and supervised by the UN. All Syrians, including the diaspora, should participate in the elections. A more specific timeline, as described in a recently leaked State Department paper, suggests a referendum on the new constitution to be held in January 2017, followed by elections six months later.

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