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A solution for Syria (part 1)

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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