Through Syria, Darkly

Through Syria, Darkly

Peace will come to Syria slowly and only after much greater violence, participants predicted grimly at the second-ever PeaceGame, co-sponsored by Foreign Policy and the United States Institute of Peace in Abu Dhabi on June 18-19. In the meantime, given the protracted conflict’s disastrous spread into Iraq, the most realistic positive developments may be limited to international cooperation to provide humanitarian relief and counter extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Despite an estimated 160,000 casualties since 2011 and at least 6.5 million people displaced from their homes, external intervention at a level sufficient to force the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table appear unlikely in the foreseeable future.  

Despite the event’s focus on finding creative paths for conflict resolution, the PeaceGame’s efforts to identify a political settlement repeatedly stalemated — just as efforts have done in reality. Progress proved elusive in the absence of significant changes to the Assad regime’s ability to hold territory or the level of pressure external actors would be willing to exact. With the spread of ISIS extremists across northern Syria and Iraq and the devolution of Iraq and Libya into ever greater levels of chaos, participants underscored a growing fear in the region that whatever would replace Assad would be even worse. Meanwhile, moderate opposition forces in Syria have lost regional support due to perceptions of division and weakness.

Participants in the most recent PeaceGame came from across the Middle East, as well as the United States and Europe. They were tasked with finding the best peace possible for Syria, echoing the PeaceGame’s mission to take peace seriously as a policy option and to devise realistic strategies to achieve it. The PeaceGame was developed as a counterpoint to the far more prevalent phenomenon of war games, which understandably privilege the threat or use of violence as an instrument of policy.

The mood was far darker than at the inaugural PeaceGame, held in Washington, D.C. in December 2013. Though concern for humanitarian suffering was high in both games, participants at the earlier event saw far more paths out of the conflict and far more international pressure for Assad to step down, even if his regime survived. At the June PeaceGame, in contrast, participants rued how much discussions focused on the use of force, since so many other options have now been eclipsed. Regional actors struggled to find ways to negotiate a political settlement that would resolve the conflict more fundamentally, choosing instead to address the immediate security threat posed by ISIS extremists and the staggering levels of humanitarian suffering.

Unlike the outcomes of December’s PeaceGame, written up in a debrief published by Foreign Policy, the shape of a best possible peace had grown worse and the opportunities for progress were narrower.

Participants did identify two important opportunities for action: one tactical and one strategic.  At the tactical level, they saw realistic opportunities to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, passed unanimously in February 2014, which demands that all parties allow unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance and enable the evacuation of all civilians who wish to leave. Given the existing Security Council resolution and continuing levels of human suffering, PeaceGame participants imagined that a coalition of states — potentially including nearby Arab states, Turkey, Iran, and Russia — could put enough pressure on the Syrian regime to allow limited access for the purposes of humanitarian aid delivery. To avoid attack by either party and defend against attacks by ISIS, participants suggested that both the regime and opposition groups serve as escorts. Because aid delivery already has a Security Council endorsement, defense of a humanitarian mission is legally justified under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, participants argued.

The key question is which states would have the will to use force to defend such a mission, rather than the legal mandate to do so. As in the last PeaceGame, Iran emerged as a lynchpin, uniquely able to put pressure on the Assad regime.

Such piecemeal acts of humanitarian assistance delivery could create momentum for further cooperation and lay the foundation for more ambitious steps down the road, PeaceGame participants hoped. Though big-picture strategies to resolve the conflict are more appealing in principle, participants viewed progress on more ambitious approaches as unlikely, so long as the Assad regime believes it is winning on the battlefield and regional actors continue to fear the consequences of regime change.

Achieving the access necessary to deliver humanitarian assistance has been challenging because it is closely linked to control of territory and populations. Indeed, the Syrian regime stands accused of cynically using starvation and attacks on aid workers as weapons of war. PeaceGame participants speculated that if humanitarian assistance could be delinked even partially from politics, more suffering could be alleviated. However, participants also noted how difficult this could prove to be.

The second opportunity results from the rapid advance of ISIS, which continues to gain ground in Iraq and advance its mission of creating a large territory spanning the width of the Levant and governed by extreme Islamist tenets. According to PeaceGame participants, the threat could be sufficiently severe to motivate action by an unlikely coalition of neighboring Arab states, Turkey, the United States, Russia, Europe, and Iran — all of which fear an extremist haven that could export violence and vitriolic ideologies across borders and even oceans. The prevalence of foreign fighters, numbering more than 10,000 by some estimates and including hundreds or even thousands with Western passports, is further cause for concern, particularly given ISIS’s wealth and ability to generate its own resources through a diversified portfolio of illicit activities, ranging from kidnapping to trafficking.

The rising threat of ISIS created the biggest potential for real change in the Syria crisis, in the eyes of PeaceGame participants, who believed that the group’s aggression might be enough to provoke action. With the Syrian crisis at a stalemate, participants speculated that ISIS might unite regional actors and the international community and lead them to address the threat with the seriousness it deserved, through unilateral efforts to cut access to funding, attacks on supply lines, and the direct or indirect use of military force. (Ironically, participants saw the use of force as essential to peace given that no other method was unlikely to influence a group as extreme as ISIS, and one so dismissive of international norms and institutions.) Because regional states have the most to lose from ISIS’s advance, PeaceGame participants also envisioned a willingness of states in the region to play larger leadership roles than they have been willing to play so far in the Syrian crisis.

If the region is successful in reducing the threat posed by ISIS, this could once again create an opening for a political settlement in Syria down the road. In the meantime, Syria’s fragility gives Assad strength by encouraging support from his friends and paralyzing his enemies. Both groups now fear that a weakened Assad regime would only further embolden ISIS.

Three casualties of the "best possible peace" envisioned at the PeaceGame stand out. The first is the Syrian people, who have already suffered far too much violence and displacement from their homes. The second is the Iraqi people, who face the possibility of a second major civil war in their homeland. The third is the norms of warfare, which have limited the use of armed force
and protected civilians for centuries. That a "best possible peace" would still have so many victims was a depressing, tragic, and sometimes infuriating commentary on how dire the situation in Syria has become and how much violence it has spawned.

Striving to find glimmers of hope, PeaceGame participants called for policymakers to prepare more seriously for the long term, since prospects for peace in the short term are elusive. Participants underscored that the Syrian and Iraq conflicts (arguably, now blended) have already shifted markedly and are likely to do so again. Policymakers should prepare now for the eventual shifts and try to shape them as much as possible. 

Most importantly, policymakers worldwide should take steps that could help to prevent Syria from becoming a true failed state — an ungoverned Arab version of Somalia, stretching across the region and exporting chaos — in the longer term. These steps include:

  • Cultivating leaders outside the formal regime to the extent possible, including those in civil society, the diaspora, and refugee camps;
  • Countering sectarianism, particularly through the engagement of religious leaders, which will undermine all future efforts at peace unless addressed;
  • Countering violent extremist ideologies and reducing the flow of recruits to ISIS;
  • Providing the necessary services to Syrian refugees, which now constitute 20 percent of Lebanon’s total population and nearly 10 percent of Jordan’s population;
  • Finding creative means to educate Syria’s children who are the future of the country.

We attribute the dark overall tone of this most recent PeaceGame to a lack of clear options for how to get to a better future. This lack of vision was profoundly disheartening but also understandable. The Middle East is now more volatile than any time in recent memory, and the international means to manage conflicts are weaker than they have been for decades. The absence of global leadership and strong institutions is creating a void that extremists are rushing to fill.

If there was a glimmer of hope at the PeaceGame it was this: Both awareness of the threat posed by ISIS  and the willingness of states to address it are rising. We are all fumbling in the dark right now. But the hope is that, once we better understand the outlines of the threat and its consequences, those who want peace will be willing to work for it.

Kristin Lord is acting president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. David Rothkopf is CEO of Foreign Policy.