Syria needs a twin-track negotiation

Since 2011 three failed strategies have been attempted, with weapons provision bringing up the rear. The regional politics of the conflict make the dangers of massive escalation imminent: it is time to find a transition acceptable to both sides.

Mariano Aguirre
15 November 2012

Syria’s civil war has claimed almost 35,000 lives and an estimated 400,000 refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, with the numbers expected to double by the end of the year. Now that fractious opposition groups have managed to strike a unity deal in Doha, it is essential that national and international negotiations continue as they could halt the conflict which is spreading throughout the region.

Since the uprising began in 2011, three failed strategies have been attempted. First, it was expected that street protests would put pressure on Bashar al-Assad to initiate reforms or leave, as had happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Second, when the regime hit back with tough measures against the opposition, the international community called for the President’s resignation and encouraged the street protests to continue. However, outside players failed to realise that the regime would not capitulate as long as it had the support of the Alawite community (who control the army and police), Christian communities, and part of the business community.

Faced with fierce repression, part of the opposition became armed and mistakenly expected a NATO air operation, as had happened in Libya in 2011. At the same time, the UN and the Arab League appointed Kofi Annan to broker a peace deal. It was doomed, however, as both the foreign opposition and the Free Syrian Army insisted on Assad’s resignation. Bashar al-Assad was between a hard place and a rock: he faced being tried like Mubarak or assassinated like Gaddafi. So with most of the Syrian army backing him (despite some defections), and international support from Iran, China and Russia, the Syrian president and army officers loyal to him decided that the only alternative was to fight to the end.

The third strategy, which is being implemented by Turkey and Qatar and supported by US and British intelligence, is to provide weapons to the opposition. This has led to increasingly severe violence, while polarizing still further the opposition and the regime, and has created a virtual deadlock: Assad cannot overpower the opposition but the rebels cannot overthrow the government. The civilian population is suffering the consequences, trapped on the battlefield and by international sanctions which fail to affect the government.

While the US and its allies are trying to unite the opposition, more and more jihad militants from different countries are joining the rebels. With combat experience in other conflicts and external funding, their aims range from setting up a radical Islamist state to seeing Syria as part of an international jihad project.

Unlike other Arab uprisings, Syria’s battlefield is politically drawn along Sunni and Shiite lines, and more specifically between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the one hand, and Iran and the Iraqi government on the other. In addition, the US, Europe, Israel, and the Persian Gulf monarchies see Assad’s removal as a means to deprive Iran of its main ally in the region. This would in turn weaken the political and military wings of Hezbollah and, to a certain extent, Hamas in Gaza.

China and Russia consider that the UN Security Council’s responsibility to protect civilians in Libya was used to overthrow Gaddafi and effect regime change. Neither country wants to set precedents in the name of “humanitarian intervention” which might be used against them in the future. They also have strong relations with Iran and have no wish to take part in the destabilization of Teheran.

Until now the US and NATO allies have not wanted to intervene militarily in Syria on account of the difficult terrain, the regime’s firepower, a divided opposition, and fear of the conflict spreading to Lebanon and Jordan. Turkey and the US are wary of a regime change which could fragment the country, leading to an Iraq-like scenario. The measures taken against Syria are unpopular among Turks and the influx of Syrian refugees is straining Turkish resources and creating clashes in the border. Furthermore, the Kurdish minorities in Syria, Iraq and Turkey are joining the cause. 

It is vital to put a stop to the brutal war in Syria and the resulting humanitarian crisis. Those who push for war and a military intervention are playing with fire in an explosive region. Ethnic diversity is further embroiling the situation and Lebanon, for example, is at risk of renewed sectarian violence.

Two initiatives should be promoted: first, the UN and Arab League mission led by Lakhdar Brahimi should be endowed with power, resources, and the diplomatic muscle to negotiate an agreement between the regime and the opposition which would pave the way for a transition acceptable to both sides, together with security guarantees for ethnic minorities. One sector of the Syrian opposition insists that Assad must leave (Britain has tested to find him a way out), but the administration should not be dismantled. Second, Brahimi’s mandate must have broad political support, including from the US, Russia, China, Iran, Egypt, the European Union, Turkey, Qatar and the Arab League, and perhaps emerging powers such as Brazil, which have refused to support sanctions or an intervention against Syria.

Translated by Fionnuala Ní Eigeartaigh

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