Endgame Strategies in Syria

The Syrian conflict has been alternately exploited and ignored long enough. The world can no longer afford to look the other way.

Presidents of Russia and Syria meet in Moscow

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow, October 21, 2015. Alexei Druzhinin/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

Talk of relative calm, even the potential for peace in Syria, is in the air, despite continuing battles in Aleppo, airstrikes, and other clashes. Joint collaboration between the United States and Russia against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and possibly a proposed joint draft of a new Syrian constitution, in addition to Russia’s withdrawal of some forces, token though that may be, are signs that the stage is being set for a serious attempt at closing down the war in Syria and preparing for political transition. Much will depend on whether or not the parties to the conflict, and in particular the President Bashar Al-Assad regime, try to push their advantage on the ground. Russia, which has played a major role in resetting the balance in the Al-Assad regime’s favor, must suspend their assistance completely to convince their ally to come to the negotiating table in good faith.

The generally accepted equation in war is that a stable balance of forces leading to a stalemate on the ground presents a good opportunity to sue for peace. The alternative is to wait until one side achieves total victory, a prospect which doesn’t seem possible in Syria anytime soon. The main combatants in Syria have all made gains and suffered losses on the ground. The regime has fended off attacks against Latakia and the Alawite mountains and seems relatively secure behind a line that stretches from near the Turkish border in the north to the Jordanian border in the south. Meanwhile, the Free Syria Army (FSA) and allied opposition forces are playing cat and mouse with ISIS north of Aleppo, but have made enough gains in that region to seriously challenge ISIS and block Kurdish forces from completing a sweep of the northern border region with Turkey. Syrian Kurds have, since the liberation of Kobani last year, established enough dominance in their region to enable them to make a strong case for autonomy once serious peace negotiations get underway.

This may well be a propitious time for the main combatants in Syria to cash in their winnings and not risk losing them to long-term attrition of their forces. This logic should be compelling to rational actors whose goals and objectives are ultimately negotiable. ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front are exempt from this characterization. The Islamic State in particular is not a rational actor in the traditional sense of the term, and does not show any interest in negotiating anything except total victory over its enemies. Al-Nusra, though different in so far as its goals are strictly Syrian, has nonetheless pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and seems bent on achieving its ultimate goal of imposing its version of sharia law all over Syria. The Islamic State will have to be defeated decisively and Al-Nusra either contained or persuaded to sever its ties with Al-Qaeda before a serious transition can get underway. Regional and international powers have to share a common conviction of this and must make it clear to their local clients that further use of force will no longer be supported by them. The alternative to this scenario is another ten years of fighting, which Syria, the region and the world can ill-afford.

Resolution of the Syrian conflict has a few similar experiences from which to draw some lessons, such as South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, and Tunisia. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, an internationally sponsored agreement, known as the Dayton Accords, followed by political negotiations and an international war crimes tribunal buffered the transition to peace. In South Africa, a truth and reconciliation commission helped national healing and prevented a return to violence. Tunisia’s transition has, despite continuing threats and challenges, been the only successful transition from uprising to a democracy via political reconciliation.

The initial phase of the agreement will be to promote peace and stability in Syria and neighboring countries that have been implicated in and affected by the war in Syria. The priority, therefore, should be for a conference between the main combatants on the ground, the Syrian regime, the main opposition, and Syrian Kurds. Internationally, in addition to the U.S. and Russia, the main sponsors of any peace agreement, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia should be represented, at least as observers if not as full participants. The goal of this initial conference would be to achieve consensus on stopping all military action with forces in place and a pledge to cease all attempts to change the status quo on the ground. The U.S. and Russia will have to monitor and enforce this pledge.

As in the case of the Dayton agreement, a wide range of international organizations will have to be deployed in order to monitor, oversee, and implement components of the agreement. A peacekeeping force will have to be agreed on, and one with the right to use force since all combatants will remain heavily armed during the first phase of the transition.

A second phase should begin with a transitional government agreed to by the principal combatants and representatives from Syria’s fourteen provinces. Since one of the tasks of such a government would be the administration of transitional justice and democratic elections, senior leaders who may well be charged with war crimes should be excluded from participation. With that principal in mind, each side should be allowed to select and deselect those who represent it. The Al-Assad regime should certainly be represented in this government, but President Bashar Al-Assad and his immediate governing circle should be excluded, as they will surely be among those charged with war crimes.

The first task of the transitional government would be to set up a broad constitutional conference to include wide representation from the social, geographic, and political bases in the country. Respected lawyers, intellectuals, and leaders of civil society should be prominently represented. The constitutional conference would be tasked with codifying a new social contract among the Syrian people, to enshrine the principles of democracy and respect for human rights. Conferees will have to grapple with questions of federalism versus a decentralized but unified government, presidential versus parliamentary systems, and various types of electoral laws. The international community can certainly help by providing information and points of comparison from other cases around the world, but the choice in all these matters must be strictly Syrian.

Simultaneously with pacifying the country, the transitional government, with the help of the international community, will have to tend to immediate humanitarian needs and set the stage for national reconciliation and healing. Serious rebuilding may have to wait for a solid agreement to emerge and some stability and security to take hold, but the Syrian people must have some hope that a normal life in Syria will once again be possible. Given the major atrocities committed thus far in Syria, ground rules will have to be set for transitional justice. The case of the former Yugoslavia has become a model for an international tribunal being the proper venue for a serious and impartial consideration of all charges of war crimes against the main combatant groups.

A national truth and reconciliation commission can similarly take guidance from the South African example of how to admit mistakes of the past, reveal the truth about the disappeared, imprisoned, and executed, and charge those who must be charged while granting amnesty to those whose services were essential in ending the war and helping the transition to move forward. In terms of political reconciliation, Tunisia, which admittedly suffered the least violence in the context of the Arab uprisings, is nonetheless a model of parties with competing ideologies learning how to live and compete peacefully under the same democratic rules and political processes.

Such a process will undoubtedly take several years to complete and will be fraught with dangers and challenges, but greater wars have ended in the past. This war can, and must, be ended too. The international community, which shares some of the blame for the conflict, and has in turn been affected by its spillover effects, must be heavily involved in ending it. Elections to select Syria’s new leadership must be a Syrian responsibility, but an international force will be needed to keep the peace and guarantee the Syrian people a truly free choice. Syria’s political infrastructure has broken down and what remains does not have the trust of the majority of Syrians. All those institutions of government must be slowly and painstakingly rebuilt with the help of the United Nations and international NGOs.

The Syrian conflict has been alternately exploited and ignored long enough. The Syrian people and indeed the world can no longer afford to look the other way as the bloodletting, displacement, and hijacked childhood of an entire generation continue unabated.

Nabeel Khoury is non-resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He spent twenty-five years as a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service, serving in various posts including: deputy chief of mission in Yemen; consul general in Casablanca; deputy director of the State Department Media Outreach Center in London; and director of the Near East South Asia Office of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In 2003, during the Iraq war he served as State Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. He has contributed to the Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, and Middle East Policy. On Twitter:@khoury_nabeel.