A couple of months ago, my friend Nadim Shehadi made an interesting comment in one of this blog’s discussions about potential “solutions” to the Syrian crisis. I’ve been meaning to publish his contribution as a stand-alone commentary ever since, and I do so now with his permission. If developments in the intervening months have changed his views, I trust he’ll weigh in below.
Three Outcomes in Syria
Guest commentary by Nadim Shehadi
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 #1 is Iraq 1991-2003. I urge you to look up the statements from the period, as they are echoed by those we hear now about Syria. The outcome would be as follows: Assad is kept in power and allowed to crush the rebellion. There would be some protection of areas like the north and the south. Crippling sanctions would drive Syria back to the Stone Age. Occasionally there would be military strikes but they would be calibrated not to upset the balance. Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time and he wrote later that the US’s practical intention was to leave the regime in Baghdad with enough power to survive. So, in a nutshell the first outcome would be to 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 #2 is, in a nutshell, something like the Dayton Agreement. 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 listen 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 was implemented was based on reality at the very worst time in their history. They are not really like that but 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 would be boundaries between the Alawite area, Druze area, Ismaili towns, Kurdish areas, tribal areas etc.
Outcome #3 is something like the Ta’if Agreement which means an abstract dysfunctional power-sharing agreement that 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 in 1976 produced the second part of Ta’if which included the mandate to ‘keep the peace’. In fact Assad is now asking for that second part of Ta’if 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 Ta’if, as in Syria this would be the first outcome described above (i.e. Iraq 1991-2003).
So, outcome #3 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 give 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 would have topless beaches in Tartus and niqabs in parts of Raqqa and the country would be able to live uncomfortably with all these contradictions.
These very checks and balances would also paralyze the central government in times of crisis, but you can’t have it all and government would 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 twenty of them can demonstrate outside the Syrian parliament demanding that the system be abolished.