North Africa, West Asia

A solution for Syria (part 1)

Syria is central to the security and future of the Middle East, but conditions for a resolution of the Syrian conflict through a political solution do not exist. An excerpt from a NOREF expert analysis.

Bassma Kodmani
16 July 2015

Creating the conditions for a political solution

Syria is known to Arabs as the heart of the Arab world, and in four years of conflict it has proved to be the command centre of the region’s nervous system. This conflict has raised collective fears; triggered unexpected solidarities across the region, the Islamic world and beyond; and unleashed competing projects and grand hegemonic designs, with a multitude of actors and agendas colliding on Syrian soil.

In four years there has been no serious effort to resolve the Syrian conflict. The strategy of containment advocated by President Obama proved to be a fantasy when the Assad regime actively sought to regionalise the conflict, fuel radicalism and encourage chaos, and ended up giving birth to a clone of itself in the shape of the Islamic State (IS).


Azaz, Syria. Lee Harper/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Is Assad a lesser evil, as some officials in the West are now openly suggesting? Only if one is willing to ignore his use of chemical weapons, Scud missiles and barrel bombs, as well as the documented mass torture in his prisons, and the death and starvation among populations besieged by regime forces. Some may say that irrespective of moral considerations, a controlled transition that preserves some continuity in governance requires that Assad be “part of the solution”, as United Nations (UN) special envoy Staffan de Mistura has stated.

The question is whether Assad is interested and, if he is, whether he is capable of securing such a transition. So far, he has not changed his position one iota, as his recent interviews with the international media indicate. More importantly, his capacity to restore state authority over the entire national territory is seriously in doubt. Assad appears increasingly to be a façade for an Iranian-led strategy with direct presence on the ground, leading some to denounce an Iranian occupation of Syria.

No party can roll back the terrible consequences of the inadequate management of the conflict by expressing support for a political initiative; governments who have found it convenient to hide behind statements to the effect that only a political solution will end the conflict are simply contributing to its prolongation. The conditions do not currently exist for a political solution in Syria and they need to be created before an actual settlement becomes a credible prospect. 

On the ground, too many players want a continuation of the conflict: the OIS and other jihadis, the regime’s special forces and its other militias, and the warlords on both sides. Those who want an end to the war are the weakest: the local groups with no ideological agenda who are rooted in their communities and are still defending the original objectives of the uprising (freedom, social justice, an end to dictatorship), and the overwhelming majority of civilians who have nobody to represent them.

Outside Syria, governments who have condemned Assad are frustrated by a US policy that has made them part of the reluctant and indecisive camp able only to express embarrassment when confronted with the continuation of the regime’s mass murder enterprise.  European states, e.g. France and Britain in particular, may have thought at certain moments that they could take the lead in undertaking some decisive moves, but the US has actively deterred them from doing so. The result has been a debilitated Europe facing the threat of jihadis moving in and out of Syria from Europe and the flow of illegal refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.

In Iran and Russia some pragmatic politicians have been advocating a compromise with the opposition, but have not been heard so far. In private they express the hope that a firm message from Washington would help strengthen their position at home.

Inside Syria, all sides are watching the signals from Washington: members of Assad’s government discuss every statement made by U.S. officials; loyalist officers have repeatedly sent messages expressing a desire to defect if only a plan for the opposition existed; and among the anti-Assad groups non-ideological fighters are hoping for serious support from western countries that would allow them to regroup quickly and regain the upper hand over Islamist groups.

The anti-IS campaign and the end game

The US-led campaign against OIS enjoys a broad consensus among Arab and world leaders and public opinion. Syrian opposition groups agree that OIS is a dangerous enemy; in fact, they were the first to confront it in 2013. To yield quick and durable results, however, the campaign needs a clear definition of its end game. For now the US president misses no opportunity to restate that the anti-OIS strategy is aimed at Iraq only.

In Syria, selected groups of fighters are given some weapons and assigned the task of fighting OIS exclusively, while they hear alarming statements from US officials to the effect that Assad should not go any time soon. From the perspective of the anti-Assad fighters, this amounts to telling them that if they win battles against OIS their reward will be to go back and live under Assad, which is not a prospect likely to strengthen their morale or preserve their credibility in the eyes of the population or of more radical groups.

Build capacity for the stabilisation of Syria

At present none of the parties to the conflict has the capacity to enforce law and order on all of Syrian territory. The choice is not between chaos or partnering with an unsavoury regime because it can restore stability – it is between chaos and chaos if no coherent strategy is defined to restore order and provide security. The existence of such a capacity is an essential prerequisite for a political solution.

For the regime, OIS’s attacks on government forces since summer 2014 have resulted in humiliating losses for the army. They have traumatised Assad’s constituency and demonstrated the regime’s loss of military capability. The regime’s ground forces have shrunk from 315,000 to roughly 150,000 troops (some sources put them as low as 60 000) since the beginning of the civil war in 2011; its allies in Iraq, Lebanon and Tehran have partially compensated for this hemorrhage by forming sectarian-based militias with fighters from as far afield as Afghanistan and North Korea. The number of foreign fighters has grown to the point that one no longer sees very many purely Syrian army formations. Four generals from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are said to have died in Janaury-February 2015.

When OIS routed Iraqi forces in Mosul, however, thousands of Iraqi fighters were called back to Iraq. The regime’s military forces are behaving increasingly like militias with only loose central command. They lay siege to areas, loot, kidnap men and women (sometimes fighters from the loyalist army), and commit crimes with the blessing of their commanders. In these conditions it is difficult to imagine how the regime would restore law and order in the areas that OIS currently controls.

If Assad’s claim that he is the most suitable partner in the fight against OIS were true, he is in a position to demonstrate this right now by stopping attacks on the non-jihadi opposition and turning his army against IS. He does not need to go to Geneva for this; indeed, he would immediately make a new Geneva possible. 

An alternative capacity does not exist either among the opposition. To develop it would require that key regional players all commit to working in the same direction, which they have failed to do in four years. Only the US can secure such a commitment from all its allies by drawing up a strategy and bringing them all into line, using the funds it has decided to allocate to the “train and equip” programme to leverage serious funding from the Gulf monarchies to serve one unified strategy. A show of determination on the part of the US would not be about fuelling the conflict, but about increasing the prospects for a political solution.

The “train and equip” programme is potentially a good scheme, but only if the selection process is revisited and the mission modified to include the fight against the regime’s forces. Powerful groups of fighters are currently present on the ground. By excluding them all from the “train and equip” programme the US would be creating a huge problem of potential spoilers. The small local groups numbering between 50 and no more than 500 men represent more than a third of opposition fighters. These are strongly embedded in their communities and have the support of the civilian population, but have never been able to grow in size or capacity for lack of stable support.

In addition, over 2,500 officers who have defected from the Syrian army are sitting idle in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. They all yearn for a plan that would bring them together under one strategy, a plan that would serve as a magnet to rival that of OIS or Jabhat el-Nusra. They understand the need to fight both OIS and the regime, and many agree that the fight against OIS could be a priority in many circumstances.

But there is an urgent need for opposition forces on the ground to clarify their position vis-à-vis Jabhat al-Nusra. For now, the US-led international coalition should isolate OIS as the only target of the air campaign. Pounding IS with bombs might work if the rest of the strategy is sound, i.e. if the end game is clear. While Jabhat al-Nusra is very close to OIS and does not seem very different from al-Qaeda, its relations with other groups is one of coexistence, because it fights the regime and has achieved significant successes against it that have bolstered its popularity and legitimacy. It therefore requires a distinct, more sophisticated strategy and more time.

Some efforts led by Syrian political and religious leaders have been made to deradicalise al-Nusra fighters and coopt its leaders, with the ultimate aim of dividing and dismantling the organisation. If and when the US begins to build a stabilisation force, it will be in a position to demand from the groups it supports that they abandon al-Nusra or experience the same fate as OIS.

Analysts and diplomats involved in the Syrian conflict envisage the creation of a Syrian stabilisation force of 50,000 men within two to three years, with a mission to enforce law and order on the ground and combat any force that stands in its way. Such a plan proposes to entrust a Syrian advisory task force with the responsibility of selecting reliable fighters to undergo a vetting process and ensure they remain dedicated to the force’s mission. With a reliable Syrian partner, the US would be able to identify a much larger pool of fighters from which to select combatants.

The time frame may seem long, but the mere start of such a programme to which Syrians could relate and adhere could begin to change the dynamics on the ground. When the time comes for a meaningful negotiation process to address the security arrangements, this force—even if still in the making—will become part of the answer to the daunting questions of who will ensure security on the ground and how to avoid another Libya.

There would be an important role for the European Union to play in this context, particularly in the area of civil-military relations, policing, local governance, and the organisation of humanitarian support as well as the return of refugees.

Bringing regional players into line

Regional powers that have been providing the means to opposition groups to fight the regime would need to commit to the implementation of a common strategy. They retain a strong capacity to shape the situation on the ground and rein in some of the most radical groups. To ensure that Turkey and the Gulf monarchies would cooperate in good faith, they need to be convinced that the end game is a genuine transition from the Assad regime and that the plan is not about strengthening Shia forces to weaken the Sunni character of Syria. For some years to come, such assurances can only come from the US.

In terms of the regime, Iran alone can decide on and plan the withdrawal of Hizbullah and Iraqi fighters, as well as its own commanders currently fighting in Syria. It may be interested in a bargain on Syria that will be influenced by its negotiations with the US on its nuclear programme and a clear recognition of its role in Iraq. But like Russia, Iran has shown throughout the conflict that it will only reconsider its position when it believes that the US has a strategy that increases the cost of its own involvement in Syria.

The full analysis was originally published by NOREF on 8 May 2015.

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