BEIRUT — The dismissal of Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister, Qadri Jamil on Tuesday appears to be part of complex maneuvering ahead of the “Geneva 2” peace talks the U.S. and Russia are proposing for next month, say analysts and rebel leaders.
Jamil's dismissal was announced on Syrian state television just days after he met with a senior U.S. envoy in Geneva. It prompted immediate speculation of serious divisions within the Syrian government over the peace talks being pressed by Washington and Moscow on Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking to oust him.
According to state television, Jamil, a Moscow-educated economist, was dismissed because he was absent from work “without prior permission and did not follow up on his duties ... Additionally, he undertook activities outside the nation without coordinating with the government.”
Those activities, U.S. officials confirmed, included a meeting in Switzerland last Saturday with President Obama’s ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford, who has been at the forefront of Western efforts to cajole the warring sides to attend stalled peace talks in Geneva scheduled for November 23-24.
The announcement of the sacking came shortly after Jamil told Russian media he had met with Ford.
A State Department spokeswoman played down the significance of the meeting between Ambassador Ford and Jamil, saying Obama’s envoy is meeting with “a long list” of people connected to the Syrian government to discuss Geneva 2. The Reuters news agency quoted a "Middle East official" as saying that Jamil came up with “unworkable proposals,” which included having the “U.S. include him with the opposition in the Geneva talks.”
Pre-talks jockeying by Assad and rebels
The private intelligence outfit Stratfor alerted commercial clients that Jamil’s dismissal “might indicate signs of fracturing and disunity within the regime.”
But Syria expert Joshua Landis, the director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, argues the firing is linked to pre-talks jockeying by the government and rebels. He argues the dismissal may well be a preemptive move by Assad to ensure Washington had no thoughts of earmarking the 61-year-old economist as a possible successor.
“Assad is not going to allow a foreign government to name his successor or a transitional head,” says Landis. “He is determined to remain President of Syria and was probably fearful that the West is looking for a figurehead who can replace him in some transitional government.”
Landis, the editor of the influential “Syria Comment” blog, compares Jamil’s sacking to the fate of a prominent Alawi politician Abdel-Aziz al-Khair, who held discussions in September 2012 with foreign officials about political options to end the war. “Al-Khair traveled to Russia and China, where he seemed to be a possible candidate for a transitional government. When he returned to Syria, he was promptly arrested, not to be heard from again,” says Landis.
No signs of split in Assad regime
Jamil is a member of the so-called patriotic opposition -- critics and political parties opposed to Assad who have refused to join the armed uprising. After parliamentary elections in 2012 -- polls that Jamil denounced as “manipulated” -- he agreed along with another Assad opponent tolerated by the regime to enter the Syrian government, taking the economic affairs portfolio. Assad officials trumpeted his acceptance of the post as evidence of their willingness to reform.
David Schenker a fellow at The Washington Institute, a U.S.-based public policy think tank and formerly the Pentagon's top policy official on the Arab countries of the Levant, says, because “Qadri wasn’t a member of the ruling Ba'ath party and not a regime insider” it is hard to reach the conclusion that his firing is a sign of a significant split within the Assad government.
The Obama administration and Russia are having a difficult time reviving Syrian peace talks. The Assad government says it won’t negotiate with those engaged in fighting and the main Western and Gulf-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, refuses to attend the Geneva 2 process while Assad remains President. The SNC says it only prepared to talk about a political transition when Assad departs power.
Rebels warn political opposition against compromise
Just a few days ago a recently formed hardline Islamist coalition of rebel groups – including some of the biggest armed brigades – warned the SNC not to backtrack, saying it would consider any who engaged in negotiations with the Assad regime as traitors liable to be hauled before Islamic sharia courts for punishment.
SNC leaders spy a more sinister motive behind Jamil’s dismissal, arguing it is a fake sacking. They maintain it is part of a cynical Assad gambit to boost Jamil’s credentials as an opponent of the regime thereby tricking the U.S. to accept him as a credible participant in the talks.
“Jamil is an integral part of the structure of the regime,” says the official spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Louay Safi. He claims the Assad regime is trying to engineer a situation where in the absence of the rebels at any Geneva talks “the government can in effect negotiate with itself. “
In an interview with Russian television Tuesday, Jamil argued the “internal opposition” had every right to be a participant in peace talks and that his readiness to negotiate “shows that Geneva 2 is going forward.” He said “impossible conditions” for talks shouldn’t be imposed – a reference to his position that rebels shouldn’t be demanding Assad steps down before they negotiate.
Speaking to the Lebanese television station, Al Mayadeen, Jamil cautioned, “the idea of Assad stepping down is out of the question.”