Safe Zones and Assurances

Three very impressive thinkers—James Dobbins, Philip Gordon, and Jeffrey Martini—recently produced for RAND an essay entitled “A Peace Plan for Syria.” They propose that near-term diplomatic efforts focus not on nationwide governance issues, but on achieving a ceasefire that would ultimately produce three “safe zones”—one for the Assad regime, one for the Kurds, and one for the Syrian opposition—and a fourth “free fire zone” from which the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) would be routed militarily and replaced by an international presence. The key to getting to a stable, presumably temporary partition of Syria is, according to the authors, accepting a continuing political role for Bashar al-Assad.

The authors open with a statement that many Syrians, nearly five years into this horrible conflict, would accept: “Almost any peace would be better than this war.” The authors’ point, however, is not to focus attention on the abominable, indiscriminate, and deliberate targeting of civilians that has made “this war” the premier humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. And their point is not to highlight the overwhelmingly dominant role of Bashar al-Assad and his enablers in orchestrating those horrific attacks and producing their gruesome consequences.

No, this crisis over time “evolved into a Hobbesian conflict of all against all,” as if the civilian-centric survival strategy of the ruling family—a strategy producing catastrophe for all of Syria and all of its neighbors—is hardly worth mentioning as the cause of what has become the humanitarian abomination and international crisis the authors seek to end. Indeed, one of the few parties in Syria that would categorically and instantly reject the authors’ “almost any peace” formulation would be the Assad regime itself. It is absolutely unrepentant.

Perhaps the authors saw a passive, no-fault characterization of what has happened to Syria as a necessary prelude to the passage in their essay that no doubt draws the most reflexive, if misdirected criticism of their work: “At this point whether President Assad stays or goes in the near-term should be regarded as a matter of pure expediency; the United States should pursue whichever outcome will more quickly stop the fighting.” It may have been awkward to argue for expediency had the role of the regime in the fall of Syria and the rise of ISIL been explicated.

Still, the authors’ aim is noble: quickly stop the fighting. The outcome they believe will most expeditiously stop the carnage—most of which consists of Assad regime explosive projectiles landing on civilian residential areas—is one in which a general ceasefire would leave the barrel-bomber-in-chief in charge of his own contiguous “safe zone,” one “stretching from the southern suburbs of Damascus, through Homs, Tartus, Baniyas, and Latakia, to Syria’s border with Turkey on the Mediterranean coast.” Yes, there would also be non-contiguous zones for the fractured opposition and for the Kurds, with outside powers enforcing the ceasefire. But the question of Assad’s status would be deferred for an indefinite timeframe by means of a western Syrian statelet, one whose establishment would require Washington’s cooperation and concurrence. Can it do so? Should it?

Iran for one would welcome such a geographical consolidation and confirmation of the Assad regime’s authority. It might actually have no problem seeing these formal ceasefire lines evolve into permanent boundaries—which they might, once drawn. This arrangement would facilitate and protect Tehran’s continued ability to use Syrian territory to support its Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, where it imprisons a country and threatens Israel with a massive arsenal of missiles and rockets. And with the Damascus suburbs brought under its control, the regime could exact terrifying retribution quietly—door-to-door—instead of inflicting sieges that provoke occasional expressions of regret and even censure from Western politicians. An Assad statelet may not be preventable. But neither would it be a consequence-free outcome. Would the administration sign up for the consequences?

The authors’ preference for the provisional (and ideally temporary) partitioning of Syria would, as they readily acknowledge, be a complex and fraught undertaking. But would it be the quickest way to stop the fighting?

It would not. If the objective is to stop the politically salient ‘fighting’—the violence that has produced so many deaths and refugees—a cartographic exercise is not required. What is needed is for Moscow and Tehran to stop targeting civilians and to forbid their client from doing so: stop the bombings, lift the sieges, and release the political prisoners—starting with women and children. One need not mimic Sykes-Picot or the France mandate, playing politics with Syrian sects and ethnicities while drawing lines on a map. Kofi Annan had it right in early 2012: oblige the so-called Syrian Arab Republic Government to take the lead in protecting civilians and de-escalating hostilities. It would, as a practical matter, be the responsibility of Russia and Iran to deliver a client who remains fully at peace with mass homicide; a person who even goes so far as to deny the very existence of barrel bombs.

But would Tehran and Moscow actually be willing to take millions of Syrian civilians off the bullseye? So far they have demonstrated no such inclination. Indeed, Russia has enthusiastically plunged into the bloodbath. Yet might it consider a different course in return for something like the Dobbins-Gordon-Martini safe zones proposal? The Obama administration is free to try. What it will likely find, however, is that although Tehran might be attracted to an arrangement that could bind a key part of Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Moscow has long-since pocketed that which the RAND authors are willing to offer up on behalf of 20 million Syrians.

Washington should, according to the authors, “assure Moscow that the Assad regime will not collapse (a core Russian interest) in exchange for a ceasefire between the regime and the opposition and joint campaign against ISIS.” Yet why would Moscow need or want an American assurance with respect to Syria? When has Washington mounted a credible threat to the Assad regime?

Indeed, what form would the assurance take? Formal retraction of President Obama’s “step aside” dictum? Public, explicit, ex post facto erasure of the chemical weapons red line? A full-throated, “we’ll never try it again” apology for the late “train and equip” program? After all these years of verbal gymnastics and operational hi-jinks, the Obama administration is, with credibility and a straight face, going to assure Russia that the Assad regime will not collapse?

And a joint campaign against ISIS? What are the millions of Syrians who have suffered unspeakable losses at the hands of a remorseless war criminal supposed to say as they are asked to join hands with Bashar al-Assad to march on Raqqa? “It’s all right Mr. President—perhaps the fault was ours?” Surely the authors must have some appreciation for what Syrians have gone through since March 2011.

Moscow has, it seems, taken its measure of what passes for the West in the early 21st century. It is creating military facts on the ground to secure its Syrian client. It claims to be in Syria to fight ISIL, but is focusing its air power on Assad’s armed opposition, not on the phony caliph. It is killing plenty of Syrian civilians in the process, also enabling Assad to shift his barrel bombing campaign to the south. Russia needs an assurance from Washington that the Assad regime will not collapse? Perhaps the recent secretary of state pronouncement in Moscow that Washington was not interested in Syrian regime change was just such an assurance. No doubt the Russians were duly impressed and greatly relieved.

The authors themselves acknowledge that assurances might not be received with gratitude. “If Russia continues to insist on simply propping up the regime and indiscriminately bombing all elements of the opposition, the United States and others will maintain their support for opposition fighters, the war will go on, and Russia will alienate the Sunni world and become a growing target for terrorists…” Indeed, the authors suggest that an expansion of support to Syrian rebels might be necessary to bring the Russians to reason. The view here is that if expanded support under current conditions is to make any difference at all, it would have to include the means to defend civilians by bringing down Russian and regime military aircraft.

Yet Moscow seems to reckon that support for opposition fighters has been and will continue to be inadequate. It appears to be prepared to take its chances on terrorism and the considered opinion of the Sunni world. Russia wants to stop in Syria what it characterizes, quite cynically, as Washington’s regime change and democratization agenda. Moscow wants to confront Barack Obama with a hideous, binary proposition: support Assad or ISIL. These are goals that transcend Syria. They may not be fully achievable. But Russian President Vladimir Putin wants more than anything else to proclaim the return of his dying, looted, but still dangerous country to the center of the world stage. He is an aggressive opportunist who seeks results, not the assurances of an indifferent, ambivalent, and conflicted adversary.

The strategic alternative for Syria offered for many months by this writer has focused on protecting Syrian civilians from mass murder in the western part of the country while destroying ISIL in the east—ideally employing ground combat units drawn from regional states—and permitting the establishment of opposition governance in territory liberated from ISIL. This alternative, like the one offered by Dobbins, Gordon, and Martini, does not obsess over the near-term status of Bashar al-Assad, or presume to demand his instant departure. Indeed, there is nothing in the 2012 Geneva Final Communique—a key document not cited by the authors—that obliges Assad to go anywhere before a transitional governing body is established through negotiations. Even then, if the opposition consents to an ongoing role for the Barrel Bomber, he stays.

The issue is not Bashar per se. The issue is what he does. He murders people—unarmed civilians—in wholesale numbers. He has all-but-destroyed his country. He has imperiled his neighbors. He has enabled the rise of ISIL. He is causing even people in his own bailiwick to vote with their feet and walk to Europe. He does all of this with the full and enthusiastic support of Russia and Iran.

Indeed, Bashar al-Assad already lives in what is surely, by Syrian standards, a safe zone. It has been made safe by Russian military aviation and Iranian-assembled militiamen. It is the rest of Syria—the Syria being pounded by Russian and regime aircraft and looted by ISIL—that is unsafe. It is the rest of Syria that has experienced the genocide-like conditions that Assad tells his own people they will experience should he ever go. And every day he authorizes atrocities knowing full well the potential for blow-back. It is his chosen path to political survival. And he has Russians and Iranians to protect him.

The authors of this very thoughtful essay have done something few have tried. They have offered a potential way forward for Syria. They deserve thanks and respect for doing so. It appears, however, that they have offered something with the best of intentions that has already been grabbed. Russia and Iran do not need assurances—they have taken what they want. The more assurances they are offered, the more they will take. They have created a safe zone for their client—how large it will ultimately be, and how many more Syrians are stampeded and slaughtered in the process of its expansion, remain to be seen.

Nothing good can happen in Syria with civilians on the bullseye. Getting them off is not cartographic work. It does not require remote-control manipulation of Syrian sects and ethnicities. It is not a matter of assurances for those fully complicit in war crimes. That which is required is relentless diplomacy backed by the credible threat of force. It requires an administration that sees the political salience (if not the humanitarian imperative) of Syrian civilian protection and does not shrink from the task. As long as civilians are the principal targets of Assad and his foreign enablers, no progress toward peace in Syria is possible.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: (Photo: Youths carry children through a site damaged from what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)