Saving Syria from Assad

Syrian President Assad left little grounds for optimism in his 6 January ‘peace’ initiative. Clearly there can now be no peace with Assad but what will it take to get rid of him and what would happen if he went?

The need is pressing. The United Nations last week estimated the death toll in the Syrian civil war at come sixty thousand since March 2011, possibly many more. International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned that if the war is not ended in 2013 Syria could indeed turn into a “hell”. However, whilst the so-called Geneva Plan lays the foundation for a resolution by Syrians for Syrians it is extremely unlikely any ‘big deal’ can now be reached between the regime and the Syrian National Coalition. Transition from war to a stable Syria will thus demand the removal of Assad and the direct involvement of the international community.

Equally, whilst the removal of Assad would be the first step to peace it would not be an end in itself. Assad is right about one thing. Fundamentalist Sunni fighters and what British Prime Minister David Cameron recently described as a “new cohort of al-Qaeda linked extremists” are all too apparent in the opposition’s ranks. If the regime simply implodes doubtless a new power struggle will begin.

Furthermore, an enduring Syrian peace will also only be possible if the conflict is detached from a wider regional Realpolitik. Iran has been supporting the regime with both expertise and munitions, with substantial evidence of direct involvement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, whilst Russia and China have blocked any direct outside intervention. Indeed, the regional strategic ambitions of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah-led conflict with Israel have critically exacerbated the war. Equally, whilst an arms embargo has been formally imposed evidence abounds that it exists in name only. The Coalition has been receiving directly or indirectly both small arms and man-held anti-aircraft missiles from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to counter the regime’s use of air power.

What would a ‘credible’ international presence on the ground look like and under what mandate? Arab League, UN, NATO, EU or a beefed up Contact Group? Experience of political transition in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (hardly encouraging) suggests that early political reconciliation would be critical but only possible if reprisal killings are prevented and the humanitarian suffering of all alleviated. A new seat of government in Damascus would also need to be rapidly established and protected, committed to a political timetable for transition underpinned by the early disarmament and rehabilitation of combatants. The armed forces would need to be re-oriented and essential services and the judicial system preserved to provide stability. Critically, senior members of the Assad regime charged under law would need to get a fair trial and justice seen to work. National elections woven into a new constitution would also be vital with extreme elements in the opposition forced to face a choice; reconciliation or exclusion. Would Russia and China agree? Maybe this is the moment for a Tony Blair-type Sextet for Syria – America, Arab League, China, EU and Russia?

But here’s the thing. For Syria to find true peace a new coherence will need to be forged that reflects a Syria very different to that of 1966 when Assad’s father seized power. That will not be easy. Assad’s fate is linked to that of Syria’s many minorities such as the Shia community, specifically the Alawhites from which he hails. Syria is 90% Arab, with some two million Kurds plus other smaller groups making up the balance of a 22 million population that has exploded by over 300% since 1966. Syria is also 87% Muslim with Shias making up 13% of the population, as against 74% Sunnis with the rest comprised of small Christian, Druze and other communities. In the past the Baathist constitution protected minorities and until those self-same minorities feel secure peace is unlikely to endure.

Moscow’s admission last month that Assad may fall from power allied to Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa assertion that no-one can win the Syrian civil war and that a transitional government is now the only way forward suggests the war is indeed at a tipping point. Sadly, no-one can expect peace soon. An enduring Syrian peace would only be possible with the consistent support of a unified international community and that simply does not exist. Even if it did would any state be prepared to commit land forces under UN mandate to secure the peace? Who would be prepared to offer the huge resources vital to re-settle peaceably displaced populations, promote peaceful transition and re-build a smashed Syria?

If peace miraculously came tomorrow with the fall of Assad Syrians would face a vacuum created by a hopelessly split international community. Saving Syria from Assad is but the first step. The Syrian civil war is not simply about the transfer of power from a national minority to a majority it is about the future geopolitical shape of the Middle East. Without real support from us all Syria will continue to be a danger to itself and its neighbors in a very dangerous region.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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