Bashar al-Assad and the Devil’s Bargain

A new plan to stop the bleeding in Syria means agreeing to a limited truce with the regime in Damascus. It’s repugnant -- but is it wrong?

AWAD AWAD/AFP/Getty Images
AWAD AWAD/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration, as I wrote last week, has at least a hypothetical way forward in Iraq, but not in Syria, which it is currently treating as the rear sanctuary for Islamic State (IS) forces besieging Iraq. By the time its long-term plan to train insurgents to fight both IS and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad reaches fruition, there may be very little Syria left to save. Even that’s assuming that the administration takes its own plan seriously, which past history suggests it will not.

What, then, can be done — by anyone — to turn off the Syrian meat grinder? 

Last week, David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote about a leaked document proposing a set of local cease-fires between Syrian rebels and the regime that might ultimately lead to a process of political reconciliation. The column whipped up a tornado of speculation in the very small world of Syria experts. That, in turn, led David Harland, the head of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), the Geneva-based organization responsible for the document, to produce a finished report outlining the proposal and then to send it to me. The document remains private, so I can’t link to it, but I can quote from it. The argument it makes must be taken seriously by anyone who cares about Syria. 

First, a word about the organization and the author of the report. You have probably never heard of HD, because that’s the way they like it. HD is in the business of conflict resolution: it brokered the agreement between the Islamists and secularists that led to a peaceful election in Tunisia. In Afghanistan, it works on negotiations with the Taliban. In Syria, they have been seeking to arrange local cease-fires since 2013, and are now hoping to broker an agreement between the rebels and the Syrian Kurds. In short, they’re serious people who do serious work. David Harland is a former U.N. official whom I have known for 15 years.

The document leaked to David Ignatius had been written by an HD official named Nir Rosen, a former journalist who has reported from every conflict zone in the Middle East and has spent the last several years inside Syria, working with regime officials and others to try to arrange cease-fires. Rosen enjoyed a brief moment of notoriety in 2012 when Assad’s email account was hacked and Rosen was found to have written several emails to regime figures highlighting his sympathetic coverage. This gave rise to the claim that Rosen was "pro-regime," which of course would make any report he wrote suggesting a peace deal with Assad deeply suspect. For what’s it worth, I don’t think Rosen is pro-regime, though I suspect that over time he has been socialized to the worldview in Damascus as other journalists are socialized to the worldview of the rebels they write about.

The premise of the HD report, titled "Steps to Settle the Syrian Conflict," is that neither the regime nor the rebels are capable of defeating the other. The savage stalemate creates conditions in which both IS and al-Nusra Front, the local al Qaeda offshoot, can thrive. Worse, the haplessness of mainstream insurgent groups has "radicalized and salafized" the rank and file, who are increasingly joining the jihadists. With the rout last week of American-backed brigades in the western city of Idlib, non-jihadi rebels are in danger of becoming a marginal force in Syria. At the same time, the Syrian state — which is now functional, but not much more, across much of the country — is coming ever closer to collapse. As the state grows weaker, criminal elements and militias grow ever stronger, while IS and al-Nusra fill the vacuum of governance. Syria could collapse into Somalia. There is an urgent need to preserve the state, so the argument goes, even if that also means keeping Assad in power. "Better to have a regime and a state than not to have a state," as Harland pithily puts it.

Along with the United Nations, HD has been on the ground in Syria trying to broker cease-fires. In almost every case, the regime, lacking the firepower to defeat the rebels, has sought to starve them into submission, at which point the rebels have acquiesced to the agony of the local population. These agreements, which are really a species of blackmail, rarely hold, and never lead to anything resembling self-government. The HD report, in contrast, envisions an agreement forged by the United Nations or other interlocutors to create an entity called a "Peace and Reconstruction Authority," which would implement local cease-fire agreements and serve as an interim authority, so that the new municipal officials would be reporting, not to the regime, but to a neutral institution.

The report emphasizes that the proposals it advances "emerge from Syrians" and would be implemented by Syrians in a bottom-up fashion, rather than imposed by outsiders from the top down. Cities that reach cease-fire agreements would be governed by whichever entity, government or rebel, holds sway. Over time, these municipalities "would ‘incubate’ local administration and politics." The international community would pay the cost of reconstruction. The end of the regime’s campaign of indiscriminate bombing would not only save civilian lives but take some of the wind out of the jihadists’ sails, for they could no longer offer themselves as the lone force capable of defending Sunnis from the barbarity of a Shiite regime. The HD report suggests that in the aftermath of a peace deal both sides could focus their firepower on the Islamic State.   

Reconciliation plans almost always postpone existential questions to some future date in the hopes that they will then be easier to decide. On the supreme existential question, "What happens to Assad?" HD’s answer is: "His fate would be decided by the Syrian people ‘at some clear point,’ following an end to the war, a comprehensive reform of the constitution, and internationally-supervised elections." Assad, that is, would not be going any time soon, if at all. Both Rosen and Harland told me that rebel commanders have come to accept that Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition for talks. Rosen believes that the rebels’ foreign backers, including the Saudis, have begun to reach the same conclusion.

There are many reasons to think the HD plan won’t work. The portion of Syria controlled by al-Nusra and the Islamic State, neither of whom will ever accept reconciliation with Assad, is growing. They will pose a mortal danger to the exquisitely fragile peace which the plan envisions. HD’s plan foresees some kind of concerted action between Syrian regime forces and moderate rebels to take on the jihadists. Critics view this as a fantasy. Rosen responds that in five cases this past summer the regime collaborated with rebels in the fight against IS at the edge of the Damascus suburbs. This has not been reported, and if accurate would make this aspect of the plan slightly less far-fetched.

Is it true that both sides have been sufficiently exhausted to make heretofore unimaginable sacrifices? One White House official who has seen Rosen’s draft told me that he sees no sign that rebel leaders would be prepared to sign off on a deal which would keep Assad in power. Nor was he persuaded that Assad had become so fearful about his survival that he was prepared to grant real self-government to the rebels. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that he viewed the proposal as a Damascus-inspired "appeal for the international community to prop up what’s left of the Assad regime." Tabler believes that the regime has used Rosen, its ally, to buy time to consolidate its control over restive parts of the country.

Rosen’s, and HD’s, calculations about what either the non-jihadi rebels or Assad (or the Saudis) would accept constitute a proposition that remains to be tested. That test will be made in the coming months as both HD and U.N. special representative Staffan de Mistura seek to broker cease-fires across the country. If they fail, we’ll have our answer.

The resistance the HD plan has encountered, and will continue to encounter, is not just a matter of sober calculation but of moral principle. The idea of permitting Assad to remain in power — to get away not just with murder, but with mass murder — is repellent. Even if he stays on in a weakened form which limits his capacity to do evil, any deal which preserves his position feels like an act of cowardly submission.

Rosen’s answer is that the rebels are no better than the regime, or the regime no worse than they. I recoil at the thought, though I accept that few outsiders have earned the right to make that judgment as he is. I’m not sure it matters in the end. We must leave it to God to weigh men’s souls. If the Syrian people have reached such a state of despair that they are prepared to live with Assad in exchange for an end to violence and chaos, that should be good enough for us.

Finally, what better do we have to offer? Tabler argues that once the cadres of U.S.-trained rebels cross back into Syria to take on IS and then the regime, starting this spring, "things are going to change." Obama is said to have belatedly realized that he has no Syria strategy, and ordered up a policy review which could include an acceleration of the military training program. Nevertheless, I suspect that the Obama administration will take its sweet time training insurgents, that the recruits will prove as refractory as they have in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that their numbers will be too small to seriously challenge IS. Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria and one of the most ardent advocates of arming non-jihadist rebels, told me that the combination of the administration’s apparent indifference to the rebels’ fate and the devastating reversals they have suffered in the field has now persuaded him that nothing will come of this path.

Justice is no longer available. The HD plan, in the unlikely event it gains traction, offers something much more modest. "All I’m calling for," Rosen said to me, "is putting a tourniquet on the country and trying to fix it somehow."

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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