How to Think about the Syrian Endgame: Considering the Turkish, Iraqi and Lebanese Models
In thinking about possible outcomes of the Syrian revolution and civil war, it is helpful to consider how the Turks, Iraqis, and Lebanese emerged from their efforts at revolution and civil war. These revolutions in Syria’s direct neighborhood provide the surest guide to considering the possibilities for the emergence of a unified national movement, the specter of ethnic cleansing, and the possible future of the Alawite and Kurdish regions.
The Struggle for Syria: The New-Old Cold War in the Middle East
Syria’s strategic importance in the Middle East is the result of its geographic location, its membership of the “resistance front” against Israel, its claim to be the heartland of Arab nationalism, and currently the Syrian regime’s alliance with Iran. Consequently, it has been a major theater of the cold wars between various contending forces in the Arab world ranging from Nasserite and Baathist Arab nationalists on the one hand to hereditary Arab monarchies on the other. Currently it has become the major arena where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry for primacy in the energy-rich Gulf and by extension in the larger Middle East is being played out. The Syrian conundrum is, therefore, not an exclusively domestic one and cannot be resolved without an understanding among the major regional powers – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – regarding the future of Syria. There are no signs that such an agreement is around the corner as the major regional powers seem to perceive the struggle for Syria as a zero-sum game and are busy supplying weapons to their favorite groups in anticipation of an extended period of civil war. Syria’s slow but sure descent into anarchy is a function not so much of its domestic divisions but the policies of the major regional powers and their great power supporters all of whom are interested in furthering their own objectives without consideration for the aspirations and interests of the Syrian people.
Assad’s Crimes and Minimum World Order: Are There Lessons to be Found Amidst the Syrian Ruins?
The technical ability to decapitate the Syrian regime was in place when it ignited the current conflict by butchering non-violent protesters. Forty thousand dead later, it still is in place. Could decapitation be reconciled with maintaining the conditions for a functioning if minimal system of world order? Are we wrong to hesitate? Does our hesitation evidence, among other things, the passing of the Unipolar Moment? Among the considerations in answering these questions are these: the “Responsibility to Protect” still seeks an anchorage in the harbor of great-power interests; preventing slaughter requires a reversal of the conventional view that external force is the last resort; international concern is a function not of the extent of atrocities but of their relevance to great-power interests; decisive intervention in the Middle East probably requires a strategic partnership between Moscow and Washington which may be beyond the psychological capacities of either elite to achieve; the US lacks a sufficient cadre of Arab-speaking operatives with the military, medical and logistical skills and financial resources that would enable them to give a decisive edge to form sustainable ties to favored rebel factions; America is tired of playing global hegemon but psychologically and politically unable to play the much more modest role of off-shore balancer.
Syria’s Societal Cleavages: Who Supports Whom?
How will Syrians deal with each other following the inevitable fall of the Assad regime? My presentation will attempt to debunk the long-standing view that it is only minorities that fear the fall of the regime. Instead, it will raise the point that poor economic policies were the main motivating forces for revolt in March 2011. I will also argue that further defections will not play a major role is destabilizing the Assad regime. It is today fronted by militia groups – the shabiha – and two national army divisions, namely, the Fourth Brigade and the Republican Guard, whose members have nowhere to go should the Assad regime fall. I will argue that the regime can continue, in its current form, until it runs out of funds to pay the country’s millions of state sector employees. If and when this happens a massive humanitarian disaster would unfold in the major cities, and Syrians who had previously sided with the regime or had simply remained neutral will finally come to see there is no future for them with the Assad regime in power.
The Islamization of the Syrian Revolution: Origins and Prospects
The growing influence of Islamist groups among the Syrian armed opposition partly result from such obvious factors as the sectarian polarization entailed by the length and brutality of the conflict, the complex role of foreign state and private donors, the influence of Islamist movements among the opposition, and the rising share of civilian volunteers within an insurgency that was initially dominated by defector officers. There is, however, another dimension that has received little attention so far: in the regions of Syria that are now outside regime control, and especially in the north, many people have been increasingly looking at religious norms and authorities as an antidote to the abuses committed by some opposition warlords. In other words, support for Islamic forces is not necessarily a sign of radicalization, but it sometimes denotes a quest for stability and security.
The Syrian Revolution: Why is it difficult and what will be its outcome?
When the wave of Arab Spring uprisings brought monumental change to Tunisia and Egypt, I thought Syria would be next. The mass demonstrations that began in Daraa seemed to join the country’s disparate groups together in a call for human dignity. Respect for human rights, equality, and protection from corruption underpinned all of the popular revolutions of the Arab Spring, and Syria was no exception. The Syrian revolution had less to do with unemployment than it did with honor and dignity. An entire people had been brutally oppressed and systematically terrorized by the leaders of their own country, and this oppression spanned decades. While the conventional wisdom behind Syrian leaders’ behavior was that dividing and repressing the people would weaken their challenges to the regime, decades of abuse actually helped galvanize the revolution. Nonetheless, the legacy of the Assad regime continues to haunt the revolution today.
Syria: A Tragic Predicament?
The prolonged strife in Syria tests basic principles of international order, especially the tensions between territorial sovereignty and global humanitarianism in a setting complicated by geopolitical rivalries and radical uncertainty.Neither nonintervention nor intervention seems politically feasible or morally acceptable under these circumstances. A UN peacekeeping response is blocked by disagreement in the Security Council, ‘coalitions of the willing’ are neither lawful nor likely to be effective, and the organized world community seems unable to do more than make futile gestures of good offices. Is there a role for civil society actors?
What Should We Be Doing?
There is no question that the appalling Syrian death toll implicates the “Responsibility to Protect,” but what does that mean concretely for what we should be doing? Moreover, two years into the Arab Spring, we’ve learned that toppling the dictator may well be easier than building a rights-respecting democracy. What lessons does that hold for Syria and the concerns we should have about the rebels’ conduct now and vision for the future?
When Assad Goes, Then What?
The Assad dictatorship will fall–in weeks or months, nobody knows–but before it does, we need to anticipate, as best we can, the dramatic challenges Syrian people are likely to face and what, if anything, outside actors can do to help them. The control and cantonment of weapons of mass destruction will be only one challenge among many. More serious will be the issue of revolutionary justice and revenge. What can be done–by the Syrian opposition and external powers combined–to prevent revenge killings from destroying, forever, the multi-ethnic, multi-confessional fabric of tolerance that was once a strength of Syria? What will happen to the Alawites?Can Syria avoid the mistakes committed during the de-Baathification process in Iraq? The human rights and justice challenges that occur once hated dictatorships fall deserve close attention now.
Surviving the Syrian Civil War
Since the earliest days of the Syrian Civil War, international actors have been at a loss about how to stop the violence against civilians and decisively bring the conflict to an end. Numerous policy proposals were made, only to later be deemed impractical. During that time, Syrians on the ground did not simply wait for help from outsiders. According to disparate and lesser-known sub-narratives, and similar to populations of other war-torn countries, many Syrians themselves found ways to get by and survive the violence. Syrian civilians certainly suffered a heavy toll, and many people have either taken part in the conflict in some form or been affected by it. But the majority of Syrians have still been able to remain in their homes. This paper groups and examines various cases of how individuals and communities have avoided violence and identifies social cohesion as an important factor for preserving community autonomy in the face of pressure from belligerents. As these examples from Syria attest, civilians are not passive in such situations and instead can exercise agency. Excessive focus by analysts and commentators on the belligerents and potential interventions by international coalitions to the neglect of local populations meant that potential bottom-up solutions to the conflict were also overlooked. The paper therefore concludes by considering whether any of the community models that are encountered could have been or may still be applicable to other communities and countries.
Beyond Assad: What’s Next for Syria?
We cannot allow ourselves to believe that all will be well immediately upon the inevitable collapse of the Assad regime. We must assume that Syria’s transition to democracy will be fraught with challenges. We should therefore plan for a multi-phase transition in which concepts such as transitional justice are understood and disseminated; rule of law is adopted and implemented; and free press and expression are assured and protected. The transitional government in Syria must work hand-in-hand with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to assure weapons clean-up and make the change to a civilian-led, accountable government. Moreover, the FSA must continue its current efforts to expel foreign jihadists whose agendas do not match those of the revolution – freedom, dignity, and democracy for all Syrians. The transition will be difficult and may take years but it can be achieved. Syrians, freed of their oppressor, can achieve a semblance of normalcy in their daily lives. The transitional government will need to implement multiple nation-wide projects concurrently, from reconstructing homes and basic infrastructure to jump-starting the economy and providing urgent relief assistance to the millions of displaced and wounded. If the transitional government is transparent and reports regularly on its progress and challenges, the Syrian people will naturally return to their national character of a secular, inclusive society that respects and protects the religious and ethnic diversity that make up the Syrian mosaic.