Lebanon, Syria

A Political Solution in Syria: The Readership’s View

syria-ottomanLast 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.

MJ said:

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.

AIG said:

What were the ingredients for the success of Ta’if [i.e. the agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War]?

  1. Syrian boots on the ground
  2. Saudi, Syrian, American and Iranian converging interests
  3. Utter fatigue after 15 years of civil war in Lebanon

Which of these ingredients is there today? None whatsoever.

  1. There will not be a player in Syria that is willing to do Syria’s job in Lebanon.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


13 thoughts on “A Political Solution in Syria: The Readership’s View

  1. Hi QN, I think we are in the same time zone.

    The word ‘solution’ is misleading because it implies that there is a problem and that it will be resolved and that the outcome would be ‘good’. I prefer the word ‘outcome’ because there are several and not all are ‘good’.

    I can see three possible outcomes:

    Outcome One is Iraq 1991-2003. I urge you to look up the statements from the period, they are echoed by those we hear now about Syria. The outcome would be as follows: Assad kept in power and allowed to crush the rebellion. Some protection of areas like the north and the south. Crippling sanctions that will drive Syria back to the stone age. Occasionally there will be military strikes but they will be calibrated not to upset the balance. Colin Powel was the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he wrote later that the US’s practical intention was to leave the regime in Baghdad enough power to survive. So in a nutshell the first outcome is keep Bashar in Power, pretend to hit him from time to time and severely punish the Syrian people for having disturbed the peace and stability we all so cherish.

    Outcome Two: In a nutshell Dayton. Take a snapshot of the current balance of power on the ground and freeze it in an agreement. In Lebanon a Dayton would have been the agreement between the militias in 1985 when the country was very neatly partitioned between the warlords. I recommend a visit to Sarajevo to speak to what the Bosnians think of the Dayton agreement. When I was there in December I could understand very well when they said that what has been implemented is based on reality at the very worst time in their history, they are not really like that and they have no options to return to a model of coexistence because the agreement sets very strict boundaries. So a Dayton in Syria would mean a conference where Bashar also remains in power and becomes the governor of the coastal region and there will be boundaries between the Alawite area, Druze area, Ismaili towns, Kurdish areas, Tribal areas etc.. etc….

    Outcome Three: In a nutshell Taif which means an abstract dysfunctional power sharing agreement which would keep Syria as one state and one society but where the interests of all groups would be taken into account and no group would be able to take over and have absolute power. This is the internal element of Taif which was in effect reached as early as 1976.

    The thirteen years that followed the entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon produced the second part of Taif which included the mandate to ‘keep the peace’. In fact Assad is now asking for that second part of Taif in Syria itself where he remains in power or else all hell will break loose. It was hell in Lebanon, but it froze over when Assad was in charge. I am not talking about this part of Taif, in Syria this would be the first outcome above (Iraq 1991-2003

    So outcome three would be without Assad, I know he will be missed especially in Washington, but there you are one has to make sacrifices for peace. It would be a decentralized state, with no boundaries as such but with administrative measures that gives locals the choice of shaping how they want to live with enough checks and balances to ensure that no single group will take over. Kurds will be Kurds, you will have topless beaches in Tartus and Niqabs in parts of Raqqa and the country will be able to live uncomfortably with all these contradictions. These very checks and balances will also paralyze central government in times of crises, but you can’t have it all and government will not really matter because it does not do much anyway. This will of course be declared to be a temporary solution. The model is pre-modern; everybody will hate it and Syrians can pay lip service to abolishing it, a minority will be foreign funded to create ‘secular’ movements and all 20 of them can demonstrate outside the Syrian parliament demanding the system to be abolished.

    Bikaffi Nabki.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | September 8, 2013, 2:18 am
  2. PS. The bad news is that we now seem to be heading towards outcome one which is for me the worst possible scenario for Syria and for the whole region. This is totally legitimate in terms of international law and political correctness. But it will be the worst crime of this century so far, Iraq was destroyed in the period 1991-2003 and not as is commonly perceived, by the 2003 invasion and the ousting of Saddam. The history of US policy in Iraq including the invasion needs to be revised and the accepted wisdom of its conclusions challenged. Bashar el Assad certainly has more allies and supporters outside Syria, including in Washington, Brussels and Rome, than in Syria itself and all this is due to the received wisdom from Iraq.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | September 8, 2013, 2:27 am
  3. The Powell Doctrine, summerized:

    Go to war only if it is guaranteed we win and our objectives are met.

    “The Powell Doctrine”, then, would have prevented the US from entering the civil war, WW1, WW2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc.

    None of these wars were started by asking congress.

    Future American wars will be fought only when US soil has been fired upon. Which all means our foreign influence will be insignificant (like it is now).

    With the US and the rest of the world on the outside looking in, additional despots and rogue regimes will get the message, and wars will increase worldwide.

    Steven Walt considers Snowden a “hero” because he isn’t part of the “Israel”.

    Bottom line, if you turn to isolationism, the war you fight will be 10x harder to win.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | September 8, 2013, 10:10 am
  4. @akbar palace:

    Congress formally declared war against Germany in WWI (Germany: April 6, 1918; Autstria-Hungary, a bit later) and WWII (Japan: December 8, 1941; Germany: a bit later). The Vietnam War was authorized by Congress in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (August 7, 1964). WWI and WWII were not “started” by asking Congress, but our participation was indeed started by asking Congress. We had “advisors” in SE Asia prior to 1964 (who remembers “Laos”?), but the large-scale participation that has come to be known as the Vietnam War was certainly preceded by the Tonkin resolution

    The Civil War was in form a rebellion and did not require a declaration of war, any more than Eisenhower required an act of Congress to send troops to Little Rock to enforce court-ordered desegregation.

    Having said that, I can’t help commenting on the concept of victory being “guaranteed” — if Powell actually said that (which I question, given the number of erroneous — or, to be charitable, misleading — assertions in the rest of your posting). It is worth remembering the following quotation from Churchill: “Always remember, however sure you are that you could easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.” IIRC, he made the comment in “My Early Life”, with reference to the Boer war. There is no such thing as a guarantee of victory when going to war.

    Posted by samadamsthedog | September 8, 2013, 11:58 am
  5. Until very recently, I was opposed to US intervention in Syria on the grounds that neither party was particularly likable and since there was no real good outcome possible, it is best not to kill anyone in advance of a bad outcome. My view has changed with the US of chemical weapons by Assad government. I think the US has a strong interest in ensuring that chemical weapons are a tactical liability. In other words, next year’s bad guy, whomever that may be, should view his use of chemical weapons as being worse for him than slugging it out, even when things are looking bad, by conventional means. In other words, he should think to himself “hmmmmm…. Things look bad for me and I may lose this war, but if I use chemical weapons, I shall surely die.” So my position as that the US should intervene, but not as a “shot across the bow” or a “limited exercise”. Rather the US should use the minimum force necessary to kill Assad and his top commanders. Whether or not that affects the outcome of the war, and it may not, is not our problem. My only interest in this is real, effective deterrent. Make people very afraid to use their chemical stockpiles and people will stop building them.

    Posted by dontgetit | September 8, 2013, 7:56 pm
  6. Not to change track too much, but Germany declared war on the US in WWII, not the other way around.

    Posted by Pas Cool | September 9, 2013, 12:26 am
  7. samadamsthedog,

    Thanks for calling me out on my mistakes. Although some of the wars were voted on by the congress, in some cases our country or assets were attacked (U-boats sunk American ships prior to us entering WW1 and Hawaii was attacked at Pearl Harbor prior to entering WW2

    After the sinking of seven U.S. merchant ships by submarines and the publication of the Zimmerman telegram, Wilson called for war on Germany,[111] which the U.S. Congress declared on 6 April 1917.

    On 7 December (8 December in Asian time zones), 1941, Japan attacked British and American holdings with near-simultaneous offensives against Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific.[144] These included an attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, landings in Thailand and Malaya[144] and the battle of Hong Kong.

    The February 1942 Fall of Singapore saw 80,000 Allied soldiers captured and enslaved by the Japanese.These attacks led the United States, Britain, China, Australia and several other states to formally declare war on Japan, whereas the Soviet Union, being heavily involved in large-scale hostilities with European Axis countries, preferred to maintain a neutrality agreement with Japan.[145]

    Germany, followed by the other Axis states, declared war on the United States in solidarity with Japan, citing as justification the American attacks on German submarines and merchant ships that had been ordered by Roosevelt.

    The point I was trying to make is that unless the US is attacked or our vital interests are attacked, conflicts where our national security is not at risk like Vietnam or Iraq will never be approved by the US congress.

    Good or bad, this this means the American voter decides our foreign policy, not our foreign policy leaders and think tanks. I’m not sure this is a good idea.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | September 9, 2013, 6:59 am
  8. The point I was trying to make is that unless the US is attacked or our vital interests are attacked, conflicts where our national security is not at risk like Vietnam or Iraq will never be approved by the US congress.

    Um, deal?

    Posted by Ben Ryan | September 12, 2013, 3:26 pm


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