Last week, I asked readers to contribute their own views on a political solution in Syria, and promised to feature some of them in a subsequent post. As the Obama administration cracks heads and bends ears on Capitol Hill (with the help of a legion of AIPAC lobbyists) in the hope of winning Congressional approval for what must be the most anti-climatic military strike in the history of the world, why would anyone bother debating political solutions?
There’s no question that this debate has already been going for a long time in Washington and other capitals, but very few government officials have been willing to speak publicly or even anonymously about what kinds of scenarios are envisioned. This is interesting, given the insistence of the Obama administration, the EU, Russia, Iran, and China that the Syrian crisis cannot be solved militarily. Here are some informed speculations about the alternatives:
Ben Ryan said:
The initial question here was about a political solution, so I will try and address that. That’s a hard one, but not obviously harder than a military solution, at least from an American perspective. We have stated clearly that we will not try to topple the regime, we have demonstrated clearly that we will not try to stop or significantly slow the violence itself, and “punishing” Assad for using chemical weapons is neither here nor there. He wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t feel he had to, and short of credible threats to topple him or destroy his stockpile (which we won’t, and probably can’t, respectively) we won’t deter him if he feels he has to in the future.
(By the way, I’m assuming for this discussion that the preferred outcome of a political solution is the removal of Assad, the prevention of the ascendance of Jabhat al-Nusra or other such groups, and the reform of the regime under a new civilian democratic system.)
So, politics. How do you bring the sides to the table? Turkey, Qatar, KSA, Jordan and the U.S. (and others variably linked to these parties) are all aiding the rebels. Russia and Iran (and others etc.) are aiding Syria. Removing their external supporters would force either side to have to negotiate a political settlement, and absent that they can keep fighting. The disagreements between the external supporters are also less existential, so we should look to an agreement between them to begin a political solution.
In this context, the recent use of chemical weapons may be a boon to negotiators. Rouhani’s response – condemning CW use and urging “the international community” to do whatever is necessary to prevent their use, “especially in Syria” – would seem to indicate some flexibility on Iran’s part in their support for Assad. Yes, Iran’s president does not make the key foreign policy decisions and yes losing their only consistent Arab ally is a big deal, but 1) Rouhani does not strike me as the Ahmadinejad or even Khatami type, to excessively freelance in his public statements without considering Khamenei and the IRGC, and 2) this conflict is embarrassing and costly for them. I suspect they would be willing to entertain solutions that don’t involve keeping Assad if they can have a hand in shaping who does come to power.
Russia has indicated no such flexibility so far, in part because this conflict is less costly and embarrassing for them. But it is also less important for their geopolitical position than for Iran’s to keep Assad himself in power. If Assad falls precipitously they lose a friend in the region, but they also almost certainly lose their investments (material and strategic) in that naval base in Tartous. Here again the use of chemical weapons – and the suspense around the U.S. response – may help. If the U.S. gets involved militarily, that could be a huge headache for us. But as we’ve seen in Iraq, that doesn’t have to mean it’s not a huge headache for everyone else, too. Could there be chemical weapons depots at that naval base in Tartous? Entirely possible! Might get bombed as part of the “punishment,” who’s to say? Russia might be willing to talk turkey with Assad on a political solution and peaceful exit if they have some confidence that they will retain certain rights and influence around that naval base with whoever comes in to power afterward.
I think a “bi-partisan” coalition of external powers backing a “national-unity” committee or coalition on the ground is achievable. The national-unity committee signs a basic cease-fire agreement between the government and moderate/secular opposition groups to begin the process of ending the violence. Not everyone will agree – you’ll have pro-government militias, Islamist rebels, and secular rebels who all refuse to lay down arms and will have to be fought or bargained with – but you’ll have started, and if the external actors stick together peace will snowball.
There are lots of tricky details left – reconciliation commissions, resettlement of refugees, a new constitution and transitional government measures. I am embarrassed about how much I’m hand waving right now, but 1) it was hard enough to get us to this point and 2) I’ve got to get to work.
The political solution that ended the Lebanese war saw a state being given the custody of “peace” in the region for the next decades. That state was Syria. The penetration by Iran — one of the candidates in the race for regional hegemony — into the pivotal Syrian state, has made that status not longer valid for the other side.
Which one of the concerned states will be given the custody of the region for the near future? That is the question that needs to be answered, and the “political solution” will only be a translation of which warring side showed the biggest resilience (translate: which one cared less for the number of dead and mutilated, especially on the other side.) One point has been won, though, by the “West”: Syria won’t have any meaning regional role in the near future, and that does take a joker from the hands of the Resistance team.
[I fear] that it will take many many more lives, displaced, destruction, before a “winner” materializes. It wont probably take as long as the Lebanese war, but it will bring even more destruction and pain. And if the history of the recent past tells us anything, at the end, there won’t be a “winner takes it all” solution.
Unlike the Lebanese war, though, this one will constantly threaten regional peace and stability, even the structures of surrounding states could be put in jeopardy. After all, that was the reason why the Assads were treated with so much patience to start with: their throne was a wasps nest, everyone knew, and everyone was reluctant to touch it.
What were the ingredients for the success of Ta’if [i.e. the agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War]?
- Syrian boots on the ground
- Saudi, Syrian, American and Iranian converging interests
- Utter fatigue after 15 years of civil war in Lebanon
Which of these ingredients is there today? None whatsoever.
- There will not be a player in Syria that is willing to do Syria’s job in Lebanon.
- There is no convergence of interests and there is not likely to be one because of the essential part Syria plays in the “axis of resistance”. Any solution will have to determine Syria’s geopolitical stance. Neutrality would not be accepted by the Iranians and the West and KSA will not accept Syria remaining in the axis. On another dimension, the Turks and much of the Syrian opposition will not accept a solution where religious parties are not allowed. The regime supporters would rather burn Syria than allow religious parties.
- The sides still look raring to fight.
So let’s not waste time discussing a possible political solution just yet.
Sam Adams the Dog said:
The only way forward to a political solution that i can see would be an alliance between Assad and the liberal secularists to allow broader representation, sharing of power, and protection of the rights of minority as well as majority confessions. In other words, an agreement to move toward the kinds of liberal reforms that were the goals of the demonstrations that were so ruthlessly suppressed in 2011. Civil war and repression would continue against the Islamic extremist factions, but said extremists would then be isolated. But it seems to me that this would offer the best, though still slim, hope for something better than the utter destruction or fragmentation of Syria. Such an agreement could imaginably be supported by the West as well as the Russians. I’m less sure about the Saudis and the Qataris.
To close, and by way of keeping up the momentum of the discussion, here are two excellent pieces by Steve Walt about the strategic incoherence of military strikes and the way forward toward an imaginative diplomatic solution.