international analysis and commentary

How Syria can be saved

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The Syrian civil war is about the transfer of power from a minority to a majority in the context of massive demographic change and a violently unstable Middle East region. The Syrian peace will be about the coherence of that majority and the future status of minorities.  Syria is 90% Arab, with some two million Kurds plus other smaller groups making up the balance of a 22 million population that has exploded by over 300% since the 1966 military coup that brought the current Ba’ath regime to power. Syria is also 87% Muslim with Shias making up 13% of the population, as against 74% Sunnis with the rest comprised of small Christian, Druze and other communities. Under the Baathist constitution the security of minorities has been guaranteed. Saving Syria is thus about far more than simply removing Assad. Indeed, Syria is in many ways a microcosm of the crisis faced by most Middle Eastern states that were crafted by Britain and France in the 1920s.

The war is clearly at a tipping point. This is evident from last week’s suggestion by long-time ally Moscow that Assad may fall from power in Damascus allied to the admission by Syria’s Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa that no one can win the Syrian civil war and that a transitional government is now the only way forward. Most estimates suggest that over 40,000 people have thus far been killed in the conflict. It is now very unlikely a “big deal” can be reached between the regime and the Syrian National Council. The only way out is for the regime to crack, Assad to go or die, and for transition to begin towards the establishment of a new, legitimate regime. Roadmaps in the Middle East are much discredited as they rarely lead anywhere, but the course of least resistance towards some form of enduring Syrian peace will require a new national, regional and international alignment.

First, the fate of Assad and those around him would need to be agreed by all parties to the conflict. There is clear evidence that the regime has committed crimes against its people. In recent days the US has become increasingly concerned that a desperate regime is preparing to use its chemical stockpiles against the Syrian people. However, Assad’s fate is closely allied to that of the minority Shia community, specifically the Alawhites from which he hails. All too evident in the war has been the coming to the fore of fundamentalist Sunni fighters that British Prime Minister David Cameron recently described as a “new cohort of al Qaeda linked extremists”. There is the very real possibility that if the regimes simply implodes a new struggle for power will begin.

Second, Syria’s fate will need to be detached from the wider regional Realpolitik that has so complicated the war. Whilst an arms embargo has been formally imposed evidence abounds that the embargo exists in name only. Iran has been supporting the regime with both expertise and munitions, with substantial evidence of direct involvement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Equally, the opposition has been receiving directly or indirectly both small arms and man-held anti-aircraft missiles from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to counter the regime’s use of air power. The regional strategic ambitions of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah-led conflict with Israel have critically exacerbated the war.

Given that lethal cocktail, what can the international community do to help bring about an end to the conflict? First, the UN Security Council must come together with the Arab League to insist upon an immediate ceasefire. Assuming that the al-Sharaa statement is not a cynical attempt to exploit divisions within the Opposition such a ceasefire must be monitored by the UN, EU and Arab League, with NATO and possibly Russia guaranteeing a no-fly zone. Ideally, some form of inter-position/peacekeeping force mandated by the UN would need to be deployed.

The Syrian peace plan will also require the long view and an international community committed to the future stability of Syria. They key question will be who if anyone will be prepared to commit land forces under UN mandate to such an end and offer the large resources vital to peaceably re-settle displaced populations.

Assuming the Assad regime goes, experience of political transition in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya would suggest that all parties to the conflict must immediately begin efforts at political reconciliation. Reprisal killings will need to be prevented and humanitarian suffering alleviated even-handedly, with a new seat of government in Damascus rapidly established and protected. A clear political timetable for transition will also be pressing, allied to early disarmament and rehabilitation of combatants with the armed forces re-oriented and with essential services and the judicial system preserved to provide stability in transition. Critically, senior members of the Assad regime charged under law must be seen to get a fair trial.

National elections will need to be woven into a new constitution with extreme elements in the opposition disarmed and forced to face a choice: reconciliation or incarceration. Outside support for the transitional government must be consistent, and commensurate with the immediate humanitarian challenge. A new UN Security Council resolution is therefore critically needed to legitimise support from key regional institutions and actors, the Arab League, the European Union and if needs be NATO, Russia and other interested powers – but only at the sovereign request of a new transitional government in Damascus. Critically, security, stabilisation and development must not be seen as sequential, but enacted in parallel.

We know that Libya remains a job only half complete (if that), more than a year after the killing of Muhammar Gheddafi. Syria will be much more complicated. However, if Syria cannot be saved what is left will be a danger to itself and its neighbours in a very dangerous region.