Peace in Syria or Syria in pieces?



by Rolf Holmboe

The Hill Times
March 1, 2017

OTTAWA—On Feb. 23, a new round of Syria peace talks started in Geneva under United Nations auspices. Since the last round in 2016, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces have made crucial advances on the battlefield, whereas rebels are locked in a fight against both the regime and extremist groups. They are divided and their support and bargaining position has dwindled.

The rebels continue to demand that Assad leaves for any political solution to be possible. But even the Turks, the main supporter of the moderate rebels, have reluctantly admitted that the regime’s battlefield advances make it impossible to demand Assad’s departure as a prerequisite for talks.

The imbalance in bargaining positions is being used by Russia and Iran to impose their version of a political settlement, not to negotiate a sustainable one.

Canada can play an important go-between role in getting the process on to the right track.

What political solution could emerge?

A political solution with Assad, even in a transition phase, means that there will be no confidence and consequently no real commitment to a solution. The tendency to “sectarian cleansing” would remain unchecked. Sunnis would still be quietly forced out of regime areas, and refugees and displaced persons would not return in any great numbers.

It would probably be possible to establish joint political and military mechanisms, such as a transitional government and a joint military council (JMC). But Assad would not survive a political solution that does not leave him in total control of the security erstablishment, so the opposition would only be offered the soft social and economic agendas and the promise that Assad would remain aloof from daily government.

With Assad still around, a deal would take little more than the form of an extended ceasefire, untenable in the long run, and there would be no real transition. The armed groups would never give up control of their respective areas, even if they were to co-operate in a JMC. Syria’s fragmentation would just become more entrenched.

What political solution is needed?

Rebuilding confidence and devising a system of power-sharing with checks and balances are at the heart of a sustainable solution.

Real power would in the first phase be with the armed groups, and the mistake of not including them in the political system should be avoided. A military intervention, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, is unlikely. Only co-operation between the regime army and moderate rebels under an integrated command in a JMC would be able to check the inevitable spoilers and be the guarantors of transition stability.

The power of a transitional government is tied to its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and a short-term import of an electoral system as the basis for democracy should be studiously avoided. In a country that has known no democracy and in which politicians have no real connections to the electorate, the key challenge is to build democracy bottom-up. 

An extended “national dialogue” consisting of thousands of political meetings at all local levels would be an indispensable tool in creating links between politicians and the populace, in ensuring a strong popular support base for government and elections and in rebuilding connections across wartorn communities and sectarian groups.

The check on the armed groups would be the increasing popular buy-in to the transitional government and elections. The check on any one armed group turning into warlords would be the assembled armed groups in the JMC. The national dialogue and the JMC would be a check on the very real possibility that “new politics” disintegrate into endless personal rivalries and squabbling.

Another key element would be devising power-sharing mechanisms inside government that would make it impossible for any one sectarian group to dominate the others.

The entire transition would depend on the commitment of international and regional sponsors to keeping their proxies fully tied to the process. The key opening for a political solution is therefore a new balance of power between the regional powers and their commitment to a peace settlement, making them guarantors of transition, just as in the case of the Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990.

What can Canada do?

Canada currently enjoys a unique position and legitimacy in international affairs, not least due to developments in the United States and Europe, and has the potential to play important go-between roles.

Firstly, Canada could work with the U.S. and European partners to make a stronger stand for a sustainable political solution to Syria. If even the minutest element of threat is re-introduced into a new concerted Western position, both Russia and Iran could find it hard to withstand. Another bargaining point is the crucial financing of any political solution, which Russia has already indicated it cannot shoulder.

Secondly, active Canadian diplomacy could help clarify Iran’s position vis-à-vis the U.S. and Sunni regional powers. This could be the basis for a new regional balance of power and consequently a key enabler of a Syria power -sharing model.

Canada should convince the U.S. that not resolving the Syria war in a sustainable way would undermine any victory over ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL, and the Islamic State). It would not mean an end to extremism. Another Sunni insurrection, potentially with al-Qaeda, would follow. Furthermore, Assad is poised to take over the central Syrian oil and gas fields, once ISIS collapses, which would solidify Iran’s power-grip on the entire Levant, further inflame Sunni resentment, and be an embarassment to the international coalition.

Image: Violaine Martin photograph courtesy of the UN

Rolf Holmboe is a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Danish ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan (2012-2015).

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