Syria, The Solution Must Be Political

(di Volker Perthes*, per The New York Times) Syria, where I lived a quarter of a century ago to do research on the country’s political economy, seems to be falling apart mainly because the political structures which I studied at that time have never really changed.

Bashar al-Assad, after inheriting power from his father 12 years ago, only wanted to modernize the system, never reform it. Regime security remains the highest priority: Power is concentrated in the hands of the president and his entourage, and is exercised in a specific form of authoritarianism that relies on confessional ties, selective inclusion through patronage and corruption, and heavy repression of dissent.

Rather than build a community that is based on citizenship and acknowledges the rich diversity of social, religious, ethnic, regional and political identities in Syria, the system has for decades restricted the political space, limiting political debate to private and secretive spheres and breeding sectarian animosities.

By deciding to meet the originally peaceful uprising with brutal force — the military or “security” solution in regime parlance — President Assad has himself brought upon the country the real threat of all-out sectarian war and potential acts of sectarian revenge against his own Alawite community if and when the regime collapses.

The regime leadership has been convinced that it can win militarily and has consequently done nothing to implement Kofi Annan’s peace plan. It has not withdrawn heavy weapons; most prisoners have not been released; the bombardment of residential areas has continued. At the same time, the protests have become a veritable uprising of attrition — increasingly militarized, unlikely to win militarily, but strong enough to prevail.

United Nations observers have a mandate only to observe, not to intervene and protect, but they have not been able to fulfill even their limited mission due to violence and obstruction.

Neither the United Nations, nor the Arab League, the United States or the European Union have a “Plan B,” but each new massacre raises new calls for some form of military intervention.

Moral outrage, however, does not give strategic guidance. The prime goal now should be to stop the violence and thereby open the way for a mediated form of political transition — in essence what Annan’s plan was about.

Any one who rightly insists that no option should be excluded should weigh the options very carefully. Limited military action, such as a series of air strikes on military airports or tank columns, would most probably only bring some balance into the civil war, not end it. A protection zone on the Turkish or the Jordanian border would only protect those who are in it.

A more massive military operation, such as a Libya-type bombing campaign or a NATO-led invasion, would also oblige the intervening coalition to assume responsibility for the future of the country: Simply to hope that the United Nations would somehow take care of restoring domestic peace, reconciliation and political reconstruction, would be utterly irresponsible.

And, of course, there would not be any regional or international legitimacy for such an intervention unless all diplomatic means had been exhausted.

Relevant international actors must therefore continue trying to find a political solution. The best plausible scenario would involve the temporary transfer of power to a deputy of the president and the exile of Assad and his entourage so as to allow a real, U.N.- and Arab League-meditated national dialogue on the political future of the country.

Such a “Yemen-style” solution leaves much to be desired, particularly because it would grant impunity to Assad. But it could stop the bloodshed.

There are no guarantees that such an outcome can be achieved. To make it possible, Assad and his cohorts would have to realize that they cannot win militarily, and that a long-drawn civil war could threaten the future of his community. But he, his family and his top aides would also need to know that there is a safe way out for them — i.e. that there is an alternative to fighting to the end.

It is not wrong, therefore, to build up a military threat. It is even more important to impose a strict economic embargo on the country and increase the political isolation of the regime. This does not mean an end to all communication with the regime: Even the original “Yemeni solution” had to be negotiated with the incumbent. Someone will have to do the same with Assad.

Russia has a central position here, and not only because of its veto in the Security Council. Russian representatives are still listened to in Damascus; and only if Assad hears from Moscow that the game is over will he really feel isolated.

Russia also can give guarantees to the Assads, including the offer of safe residence in, say, Sochi. Pundits in Moscow do not think that the Assad regime will survive, but there is concern that its fall would become a strategic loss for Russia. This need not be so if Russia obtains a lead role in international efforts to rescue Syria. An international conference in Moscow that focuses on ending the bloodshed, the mechanics of transition and international support to keeping the peace thereafter may be the best available option today.

Rescuing Syria, of course, is not primarily about the interests of external players. We must not ignore that some 20 percent or more of the active population are real supporters of the regime, and a still somewhat bigger portion is simply scared — scared of the alternatives to the Assad regime, of the chaos after its end, or of the breakup of the country.

Only if the minorities and other groups that the regime has relied on for decades feel assured that they, too, have a future in post-Assad Syria will it be possible to avert a civil war after the fall of the regime, one that could be even longer and bloodier than the one now underway. (The New York Times)


* Volker Perthes è direttore del German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) di Berlino.