A Path to Peace in Syria

As President Bashar al-Assad’s officials reach out to contacts in the West, the differences between the regime and the opposition may be smaller than they first appeared.


The current U.S. approach to Syria has been overtaken by the course of events. While Washington attempted to contain the conflict as much as possible, in the hope that a political settlement could emerge from exhaustion, if nothing else, the advance of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) in Iraq has shown that the war is spreading across the Middle East. It isn’t only Iraq: The millions of Syrian refugees and the sectarian animosities engendered by the conflict are destabilizing Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey as well.

There are no easy answers. Certainly, enhanced American military involvement in Syria is not a solution: Such a policy would only encourage Syria’s allies, Iran and Russia, to increase their support for the regime, an escalation in which the United States in no way, shape, or form wants to become involved. The $500 million requested by President Barack Obama’s administration to aid vetted rebels is a sop to Washington interventionists and is certainly not enough to tip the military balance in Syria. The timing of the announcement suggests that its ultimate target may be to weaken ISIS rather than the regime, and the request is likely to get ensnared in Congress — which may have been the administration’s intent.

Rather, perhaps counterintuitively, what the Syrian conflict needs now is another push of intense, persistent, and creative diplomacy toward a negotiated settlement. Difficult to accomplish? Absolutely. Impossible? Not at all. The last round of talks in Geneva were a failure, but that does not mean that diplomacy should cease and desist.

Three years of brutal conflict have actually produced similar discourse regarding a political settlement by elements within both President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition. Neither side is monolithic: We know of the fragmentation of the opposition, but the Syrian government also has its different factions. Certainly, a moderate faction within the Syrian regime — and I believe Assad himself can be counted in this group — has of late been putting out a number of feelers to Western contacts regarding its vision of a "new Syria," and what it might take to get there. I recently met with top Syrian officials in Beirut, and I know of at least two other such meetings with other U.S. interlocutors in recent months.

Needless to say, there is still a vast divide on what exactly is an acceptable political settlement. The question of whether Assad should stay on as president in some capacity or go is still a combustible issue to many. But beyond this issue, there are some important convergences on the broad parameters of what a post-conflict Syria should look like.

Both regime and opposition officials, for example, tout the idea that Syria’s post-conflict future should be defined by a decentralized, federal political system. Details beyond this are hard to come by, and the failure of a federal system in Iraq does not engender much confidence that it would succeed in Syria. It is also safe to say that the regime version of a decentralized political system is very different from opposition versions. The regime will want to maintain as much central government authority as possible, while the opposition — at least those willing to consider this alternative — will press for a devolution of power away from Damascus and toward the provinces and municipalities. Regardless of the differences, however, there is a general recognition on both sides that the "old Syria" — the authoritarian, centralized structure that existed prior to March 2011 — is gone, and should not be resuscitated.

The opposition’s predisposition toward decentralization is fairly easy to understand. It is a reflection of the sectarian and ethnic diversity spawned and hardened by the civil war as well as the fact that many villages, cities, and provinces have essentially been on their own for some time.

Syrian regime officials, far from being advocates of a pluralist democracy, see decentralization as a strategic necessity. For them, it is the best way for components of the regime to ensure at least some modicum of power and status in the future. The regime has neither the manpower nor money — much less the legitimacy or credibility — to reassert anywhere close to the authority it once enjoyed over the territories it has lost, and even over much of what it nominally controls. Besides, why would it want to make concessions in political negotiations to gain back territory that has largely been destroyed?

There is also absolutely no way that the regime’s military, which is even more dominated now by Alawites than it was in the past, would be allowed back into Sunni-majority villages, cities, and provinces. These areas have largely been on their own for three years, and view Alawites in general with tremendous distrust and outright animus — an attitude reciprocated by the Alawites. From Assad’s point of view, if he really wants a shot at maintaining his position while reintegrating most of the nation-state of Syria, decentralization is his only choice — even with the recent uptick in the regime’s military fortunes.

Ever since it became clear that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon, the central question for any political settlement has been this: Can the Syrian regime give up enough power to satisfy at least the minimum requirements of a critical mass of the opposition? In the end, it may prove impossible to find a satisfactory formula, but it is certainly something worthy of careful exploration. War weariness has softened what had been a litany of hard-line positions by each side, creating a potential bargaining situation where the government’s political power can be traded between the provinces and Damascus. Much work remains on both sides, however, in terms of generating ideas that can potentially form the basis for compromise.

There is certainly reason to doubt the sincerity of the regime’s feelers to Western contacts, as Damascus often pursues several options at once, in an effort to have its cake and eat it, too. And the regime will bargain hard in an excruciatingly tedious process wherein it will try to seem as if it is giving up power without actually doing so in a meaningful way. There is also still the question of finding — and meticulously developing — viable negotiating partners on the opposition side amid increasing opposition polarization. And a "new" Syria cannot just replicate sectarian authoritarianism in another form, as happened in Iraq. But what other realistic option is there for ending a conflict in a way that contributes to the Middle East’s stability, rather than simply watching the war add to the regional conflagration?

If a negotiation can eventually be organized, the devil will be in the details. The problem is that neither side has really been compelled to think about the substance of its preferred form of governance in a systematic, coordinated fashion. This will take time and perseverance, as international mediators shuttle between the sides, away from the Geneva-type grand-bargain spotlight. The initial steps are quite basic: Learn about the real interests of the stakeholders, especially those on the ground, and then work with both sides to develop options that hopefully begin to reconcile competing political interests and engender further discussion — perhaps within each side first before moving on to the bilateral level.

Assad is a key. Only he can convince regime hard-liners to realize this is the only way forward. Recent history suggests the Syrian president may not be willing or able to do this if it means him giving up power. According to a senior official in Ankara, a top Turkish official met with Assad early in the uprising in 2011 to encourage him to enact political reform. He told Assad that a Syrian president would have more legitimacy by winning 40 percent of the vote in a true pluralist democracy than the usual 98 percent of the vote in Syria’s typical single-candidate referendums. Assad reportedly reacted to this by saying, "Well, what happens if I lose?" The Turkish official responded, "Then you retire."

To date, Assad has found the option of "retiring" at some point unacceptable. With his recent election "victory," Assad thumbed his nose at the very idea that he will be transitioned out in an internationally brokered agreement. Unfortunately, if he is seen as being essential to a solution, then it is likely he will see himself as essential in its aftermath.

The only solution is some medium-term path of political accommodation, resulting from creative and persistent diplomacy coupled with greater regional and international cooperation. It may take years rather than months, but it is ultimately the only way to prevent Syria from becoming a multigenerational battleground that sparks widespread regional instability. There is no time to lose, as this disaster scenario is already occurring.

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