Syria: Is There a Pathway to Peace?

These remarks were delivered to the Belfer Center Board, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University on September 24, 2013.

Two and one-half years into the uprising against family rule in Syria, we are witnessing state failure in the middle of a region not terribly stable under the best of circumstances; a region containing allies and friends of the United States.The question confronting diplomats is whether or not this downward spiral into anarchy can be arrested and reversed; whether or not there is a genuine pathway to peace. The prospects are not good. Yet neither are they inconceivable.

The decision of Syria’s ruling family in March 2011 to try to suppress with violence a peaceful protest movement, one rooted in economic grievance and the denial of dignity, destroyed a seemingly sturdy facade of national unity and reduced Syria to its sectarian components. The consequences have been alarming: well over 100 thousand dead; countless others traumatized, maimed, and terrorized; nearly 7 million routed from their homes, 2 million of whom have been stampeded across international borders; tens of thousands rotting in prisons and undergoing torture; and the carcass that is Syria serving as a magnet for parasitic sectarian extremists funded by private Gulf contributors promoting an abominable perversion of Islam.

If all of this were not enough, Iran has sought to prop up a regime it knows to be brutal, incompetent, criminal, and corrupt, but one Tehran deems essential to the maintenance of Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based strategic deterrence and retaliatory force confronting Israel. Saudi Arabia, among others, has seen Syria as the stage where Iran can be beaten. Russia, at least until recently, has viewed Syria as a place where it might ride the efforts of others to a proxy war victory. And the United States has reflected great ambivalence, clinging to the defensible, but possibly irrelevant view, that there is no military solution to Syria’s agony, even as others doggedly pursue military victory.

If current trends continue—even if the chemical weapons framework agreement recently reached by the United States and Russia is implemented in full—Syria will be effectively, if unstably, partitioned between rival terrorists entities whose enmity has masked some very practical collaboration. The Assad regime, after all, needs al-Qaeda and like-minded primitives to be its enemy. And those motivated by the basest of sectarian sentiments need something like the Assad regime to serve as a foil. No one should assume that the close operational contacts between the Assad regime and al-Qaeda in Iraq have gone away—contacts that facilitated the passage of terrorists into Iraq through Syria for many years.

Yet a partition of sorts is shaping up. To the west of a line running from Jordan to Turkey, one including major urban centers and Mediterranean Sea frontage, the regime of the Assad-Makhlouf clan would continue to exist under Iranian and Russian patronage. Although borders would not likely formally change, there would be a practical merger of sorts between Assad’s Syria and the Hezbollah-dominated Biqaa Valley of Lebanon. Assad might not prevail as the senior partner in such an arrangement.

To the east of the line Syrians would find themselves increasingly at the mercy of jihadists, terrorists, and common criminals, except perhaps in the largely Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria. An economy already ruined would bottom out on both sides of the line, causing Syria to continue to hemorrhage large numbers of people into neighboring countries and beyond. Those dominating both sides of the line—practiced war criminals, assassins, and terrorists—would constitute permanent security threats to all of the neighbors of the failed Syrian state. Syria could become to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon what Somalia has become to Kenya.

I suspect that very few Syrians want the kind of outcome I have just described. Sadly, however, those who want a decent, non-sectarian, Syria of citizenship do not at present have the requisite leverage to give substance to their vision. Yet they probably represent a sizable majority of Syria’s 23 million people.

Syrians currently adhering to the Assad regime have no illusions about that which they grudgingly support. They either fear the alternative or do not know what it is. Some of them believe that the regime’s violent excesses have taken them hostage and will make them objects of vengeance, particularly those of the same sect as the regime’s leaders.

Syrians opposing the regime are not good candidates for membership in al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups, foreign or home-grown. Yet the local committees and the mainstream, military defector-based armed opposition look at the support lavished on the regime and the regime’s jihadist opponents of choice and wonder why they, as non-sectarian Syrian nationalists, get so little. The answer seems to be that those truly dedicated to a zero-sum outcome—Iran, Russia, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and private Gulf contributors—are all-in. Those who call for a negotiated outcome, who reject the idea that there may be winners and losers among those who have guns, and express fear that there is such a thing as the Assad regime going down too quickly have been ambivalent and deeply skeptical about their ability to nudge Syria in directions that are non-catastrophic. They are conjuring, with their uncertainty and indecision, the mother of all unintended consequences: the handing over of Syria to competing gangs of extremists and terrorists.

The events of August 21, 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus may, in the fullness of time, be seen as having opened the pathway to peace in Syria. Yet it is equally possible that historians will view the manner in which the aftermath of the horrific chemical massacre was handled as having been critical to creating the scenario I just described: one in which the Assad regime survives under Iranian tutelage in western Syria while the east descends into chaos.

Either the United States and Russia will build a bridge from their chemical framework agreement to something that goes to the heart of the Syrian conflict, or two catastrophic trends will continue: the Assad regime will continue that which it has been doing for the better part of two years: pounding populated areas it does not occupy with artillery, aerial bombs, rockets, and missiles, while Iranian-supplied Lebanese and Iraqi militiamen help it stabilize its ground position; and extremists in eastern Syria will continue to marginalize the moderate opposition while subjecting Syrians to forms of governance foreign to Islam and Syria alike.

Indeed, although chemical weapons are considered to be especially loathsome and worthy of special sanction, they represent the tip of a very deadly iceberg in Syria. In truth there is not much happening on a day-to-day basis in terms of combat units firing and maneuvering. Almost the entirety of the regime’s military weight is brought to bear on civilian populations. The horrors of this and other Assad regime practices were recently detailed in another report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council by the non-partisan international independent commission of inquiry. The commission also cited three jihadist units that are replicating, albeit on a much lower scale, the practices of the regime. The central point, however, is this: as long as the Assad regime persists in a program of shelling and bombing intended to kill, maim, terrorize, and traumatize, how can one expect negotiations to proceed? Kofi Annan recognized the problem by late 2011, when he implored the regime to take a series of de-escalatory and humanitarian steps. President Assad agreed to do so. He never implemented that to which he agreed.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, will meet later this week to try to set a date and an agenda for a Geneva peace conference. As one of the architects of the June 2012 Geneva agreement on political transition in Syria, I hope they succeed in resurrecting something that was quite promising, albeit very briefly. Yet unless the war on defenseless civilians stops, Geneva cannot proceed.

How, after all, can anyone from the Syrian opposition show up at Geneva under these conditions, engage in dialogue, and preserve his or her credibility with people inside Syria? Clearly we would not expect anyone to negotiate with a regime while it rains sarin gas down on his or her constituents. But are cluster bombs OK? Is a Scud missile shaving an apartment complex in half permissible? How about barrel bombs dropped by aircraft on hospitals or bakeries? Is a child ripped to shreds by a mortar round or an artillery shell more attractive or acceptable in the eyes of international norms than one asphyxiated by poison? Are these the kinds of practices that we think can facilitate a civilized exchange at the Palais des Nations in Geneva?

I think that when Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov, perhaps to be joined by UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, meet later this week, they should have a serious discussion. Forget about the date, the attendees, and the shape of the table. Speak instead about what has to happen for Geneva 2 to take place. Concentrate instead on what must happen for this meeting to do some good. Focus, laser-like, on stopping the slaughter of innocents.

A few days ago a minister in the Syrian government told The Guardian that Syria was exhausted; that no one could dominate militarily. Qadri Jamil suggested that the government ought to propose a ceasefire at Geneva. Minister Jamil, a communist, is a favorite of Moscow. Yet he is also an employee of Bashar al-Assad. A day later he retracted his comments.

The truth is that no one need wait until Geneva to propose or implement a ceasefire. Again: Syria’s conflict has hardened to the point where conventional fire and maneuver combat between opposing military units is relatively rare. Yes, units in urban area snipe at one another and occasionally try to take a block or two. Yes, occasionally a neighborhood, a village, or an airbase falls. The Assad regime still possesses military superiority against the full range of its opponents. Yet it is using those assets almost entirely against civilians. This it can stop unilaterally.

Clearly what is needed is strong Russian pressure on its Syrian client to cease and desist with the gratuitous terror: mass killing that demonstrates that Assad and his colleagues have no interest in reconciliation with populations sympathetic to the rebel cause. If Moscow could bring about a sustained cessation of this needless slaughter, I would think the United States could deliver a coherent opposition negotiating team to Geneva and perhaps even proceed with the chemical weapons agreement on the basis of something less than a Chapter VII Security Council resolution. After all, chemicals are the tip—only the tip—of an iceberg that will sink all attempts at finding a political way forward, while killing innocent civilians by the thousands in the process.

What then needs to be done? The key is for Moscow to make an all-out effort to stop the city-busting. It can present Assad with a very simple proposition, one that would lend substance to its claim of support for the Geneva process: “Until we hear from Lakhdar Brahimi that he is receiving your full cooperation, you will get nothing from us: no arms, no economic assistance, no political cover in the UN or elsewhere. We expect you to implement the Kofi Annan plan to which you agreed many moons ago. Yes, we will lean hard on the Americans and others to get corresponding gestures from the opposition. Yes, we will try to get UN observers to monitor a ceasefire. Yes, if you cooperate we can dodge a Chapter VII resolution on the chemical matter. Yet your future with us is now in the hands of Lakhdar Brahimi.”

The United States would have some heavy diplomatic lifting as well. It will need to work intensely with the Syrian National Coalition and others to help the Syrian opposition develop negotiating objectives and a strategy. It will have to convince the opposition to come to Geneva once the civilian slaughter has stopped, even though the Geneva agreement contains no preconditions about the future of Assad or his regime. The purpose of Geneva is to produce, through negotiations done on the basis of mutual consent, a transitional governing body exercising full executive power consistent with human rights standards. Assad would stay in power, even for just the balance of his term, only with the consent of the opposition. But there is no Geneva requirement for him to resign in advance and leave the country. The United States will have to make this case to the opposition even though it is thoroughly distrusted by Syrian moderates.

What are the chances of a pathway to peace opening up? There are, I think, four key variables.

First, there is Bashar al-Assad. Before the August 21 chemical attack he was radiating confidence. More recently he has reflected fear that Barack Obama would rain destruction down on his killing machine. He has now resumed the massed fires on populated areas after a brief hiatus. If he can hold the Iranians, he might well defy the Russians, assuming Moscow were to do anything at all.

Second, there is Vladimir Putin. Is he willing to contemplate the non-Assad outcome implied by Geneva? Is he willing to lean hard on his client? Or is he telling Assad, in effect, “You were a fool to use chemical weapons. You actually tempted Obama to do something. Now put that stuff away and get on with winning your war.” John Kerry will have a near-term opportunity to get some answers. Yet even if Putin opts to save lives in Syria and create a basis for Geneva, Assad might choose to ignore him.

Third, there is Iran. Tehran has much more leverage on Assad than Russia does. There are strong indications that Iranian leaders know the truth of what happened on August 21 and are not the least bit amused by Assad’s mimicry of Saddam Hussein. And yet Iran needs Assad for Hezbollah; Tehran realizes that even a compromise Syrian national unity government could not sustain Syria’s subordination to it on this issue. But if there were a nuclear deal with the West—one eliminating the possibility of an Israeli military strike—Iran would surely be tempted to reconsider the scope of its investment in Syria’s loathsome ruling clan.

Fourth and finally, there is the United States. For the better part of two weeks the Assad regime, Iran, Russia, and others took the United States seriously. Can Washington recapture or sustain the kind of credibility that, in the two weeks following the chemical atrocity, actually caused the Assad regime to lay low, sparing thousands of civilians from death, terror, maiming, and flight? Will the United States get serious about arming, equipping, and training Syrian opposition elements willing to fight for a decent, non-sectarian outcome? Will the United States get in the face of a Kuwaiti Emir, whose family owes its political existence to the sacrifices of Americans, to crack down on private Kuwaiti money flowing to murderers and common criminals trying to justify their depredations by stealing the label of Islam? Will the United States urge the mainstream opposition to establish a government on Syrian territory and then support it? Or, will Washington, Hamlet-like, continue to wring its hands over Syria’s systematic destruction, agonizing over whether there is anything at all Americans can do right overseas after a decade of Iraq and Afghanistan?

As an American I am predisposed toward optimism. And yet Samantha Power reminds us that it has, in the past, taken presidential leadership for America to act in the face of mass murder in faraway places, even in cases that, unlike Syria, did not pose substantial threats to US allies and friends. It is one thing to see a negotiated settlement as an analytically desirable outcome. It is something else entirely to set the stage for that outcome in a world that remains heartless, cruel and merciless. That would require the execution of a comprehensive strategy based on clearly defined national security objectives. It is this requirement that makes optimism hard to sustain in the case of Syria.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Free Syrian Army fighters train in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria. April 1, 2012. (Photo: Flickr/Freedom House/CC license)