On Russia in World Affairs

Debating Solutions for Syria: Pacted Transition, Not Military Action

September 10, 2013

Two-and-a-half-years into the Syrian conflict, the balance of power in the embattled state continues to evolve between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition groups, composed of secularists, islamists, and Al Qaeda-trained jihadists. Since the beginning of the Damascus spring in March 2011, more than 100,000 Syrians fell victim to brutal violence, and more than 2 million fled the country. Western powers and the Arab world have, by and large, refrained from getting their feet entangled in the existing morass. Yet, in light of the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime near Damascus, the U.S. has warned Assad that his behavior will not be tolerated. In turn, Assad called Obama’s bluff, partly because what the U.S. is considering now should have been done a long while ago. Now, military strikes can only make things worse, particularly for the West. The solution to the crisis in Syria, arguably, lies in a pacted transition between the members of the Assad regime and the moderate segments of the opposition. But the debate on who is going to benefit more from such a pact is the driving force behind ongoing bloodshed in Syria.



“Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam” (the people want the fall of the regime)


In his rare interview to the Wall Street Journal in late January 2011 – following the ouster of Ben Ali in Tunisia and the beginning of the Egyptian revolution – Syrian president Bashar al-Assad drew a line between what was happening in the Arab World and what lay ahead for Syria. Assad held that his was the state that had been paying heed to the will of the Syrians. The only similarity which Assad acknowledged was the sense of “desperation” among Arab nations that triggered the uprisings. Explaining the causes of such desperation, Assad offered internal and external factors. External factors implied some world powers’ meddling in regional affairs, the internal ones – the lack of accountability of governments before their people. “You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of the society. There must be something to have this balance,” Syrian president maintained.


This balance, however, began to crumble when the Assad regime resorted to assymetrical violence, seeking to nip Syria’s protest movement in the bud. The rebellion against the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, beginning in March 2011, did not emulate the uprisings in other Arab states. Until the protests in Deraa, Syria’s southwest, broke out, Bashar al-Assad had been convinced that the Arab spring’s revolutionary momentum would not spill into Syria. The regime seemed to have learned from other Arab dictators’ mistakes in seeking to eliminate any threat to its power. Assad’s ruthlessness, however, consequently put him on the spot. Trying to hold onto power through terror, the Assad regime gravely undermined its legitimacy and, worse, triggered a civil war.


As the violence in Syria escalated, a regional conflict morphed into an issue of international concern. Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s militia group Hizbullah, and China backed the Assad regime. The so-called “Friends of Syria,” including Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States, took the side of the Syrian opposition. Due to the complexity of Syria’s sectarian divisions, disunity among the opposition groups, and Western passivity during the first stage of conflict, the Syrian National Council and smaller factions have failed to consolidate efforts at ousting Bashar al-Assad. Further, the opposition subsequently split along ideological and religious lines, making it much harder for the West to provide formidable support to Syria’s divided opposition movement, which includes Al-Nusra Front, the group that Washington considers terrorists.



Photo Credit: The Economist


Russia’s stance on Syria has been actuated by antagonism towards U.S. Mideast policy: its success in toppling Hussein and Gaddafi, and its goals of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, who is seen as Russia’s last military ally in the region. For Moscow, Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy is unquestionable, if not self-evident, and Assad’s main adversary, the West, is behaving like a “bull in a China shop.” Like Russia, which provided Assad with arms and defense systems, Iran has also been funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to Damascus. For Syria’s allies, the Syrian rebellion was a coup d’état orchestrated by the West and its regional allies. And inasmuch as the NATO operation in Libya overtly violated the U.N. agreements, Russia and China learned from their mistakes and nixed the resolutions on Syria in the U.N. Security Council. Held in June 2013, the first diplomatic talks among foreign powers in Geneva yielded little more than tentative plans of a coalition government in Syria upon the conclusion of the conflict.


The Risks of Acting


In light of the alleged chemical weapons use by Assad forces, the Syrian opposition has been boycotting the Geneva II talks, advocating their ultimate goal of removing Assad from power first. Following the chemical attack, the U.S. has called for a limited military strike against the regime. While Britain has chosen to eschew a military operation, the U.S. marshaled the support of nine countries, excluding the Arab states, according to the Guardian. Yet, so far, it seems as if it were harder for Obama to garner the support of the American people than foreign countries.  


Obama’s chances of success in this undertaking, however, are difficult to measure, let alone predict – given the White House’s lack of a strong relationship with Congress and public opinion demanding the U.S. not intervene. In his appeal to the nation, State Secretary John Kerry noted that “the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting,” advocating the moral imperative to conduct a strike against the Assad regime.  In unison with Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, appealing to the Chemical Weapons Convention, argued that if the U.S. did not punish Assad, other rogue regimes, like North Korea, would acquire or use chemical weapons. Amid the Syria debate in Congress, senators John McCain ® and Robert Menendez (D) called for degrading Assad’s capabilities and shifting the balance in the opposition's favor. Senator Marco Rubio ® insisted the U.S. should continue to supply arms and materiel to the rebel groups.


In the main, the U.S. Congress has been paralyzed over Syria, and the prospects of a congressional authorization are withering. Both Congress and the U.S. public speak firmly against the military attack: according to the AP poll, only 1 in 5 Americans reckon that failing to act would embolden rogue states to use chemical munitions against their people, with more than two hundred House members undecided about the attack against Syria. President Obama may choose to disregard the voices of the U.S. Congress and the public and act on his own, but he will have no excuse if U.S. actions exacerbate things. Therefore, in order to avoid finding itself in another quagmire, the U.S. should weigh a myriad of factors, including implications for the region, international law, and the calculations of Syria’s allies.



Pacts, Transitions, and Peace


In the recent weeks, the excessive amount of media attention centered mostly on external actors in the Syrian conflict, as if it were a proxy-war waged by Moscow and Washington. The Kremlin frequently reminded the U.S. of its quagmire in Iraq, the undertaking the United States subsequently rued. As Moscow’s warnings went unheeded in 2003, Russian president feels emboldened to assert that the U.S. military attack will likely exacerbate things. Without substantial evidence, the Kremlin is unlikely to discuss a U.N. resolution on Syria favored by the West. Essentially realpolitik, both the Putin administration and Russia’s Foreign Ministry regard an idea of punitive strike against Damascus as a means of shifting the balance in Syria’s civil war toward anti-Assad forces. Having offered a plan of putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, Russia sought to dissuade Washington from a unilateral action. Much like its pledge of securing Iran’s enriched uranium, Russia’s plan is unrealistic, given that the inspections of Syria’s 72 chemical facilities will take place in the midst of a brutal conflict.


The Obama administration has a short list of options, but avoiding trouble would be the wisest. John Kerry’s diplomatic u-turn shows that the White House is weighing a political option, that is a long, excrutiating task of negotiations, which, however, will be contingent on Bashar al-Assad and the rebels alike. Given the current situation on the ground, neither the Assad regime nor the opposition are ready for a civil war settlement, since the balance of power remains uneven. The problem is compounded by the fact that Russia and Iran are not considering a scenario, under which Assad is removed. Yet, it is difficult to imagine how the Syrian dictator will be able to hold Syria together without formidable legitimacy. Conversely, if the rebels gain unlimited access to power, Syria will face a fate similar to Afghanistan.


Hence, a pacted transition concluded by the Baath Party and the opposition can be the only politically feasible solution to Syrian conflict; a pact which would entail the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power and the exclusion of Al-Nusra and other spoilers from the peace process. The DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration) process must then follow in order to reduce the threat of conflict’s renewal in the future. For the conflict to end, Assad has to step down and put in his stead a moderate politician, who will be able to lead a political transition towards a transitional government of Syria. Each side of Syrian conflict seeks to enervate the adversary and conclude peace accords. But as the great political theorist Thucydides wrote, “it is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disaster to discuss the matter.” If peace in Syria can only be achieved through power sharing and negotiations, why not give peace a chance?  

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