A Skeptic’s Take on Solving Syria

Bashar al-Assad is just one of many obstacles in the way of pulling a war-torn country out of chaos. At least for now.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L), German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier (2ndL), UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (7thL), US Secretary of State John Kerry (5thR), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (4thR), Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Baodong (2ndR) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) wait before a meeting with 17 nations, the European Union and United Nations at the Hotel Imperial on October 30, 2015 in Vienna, Austria. Kerry and other leaders are in Vienna to discuss solutions to the conflict in Syria. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L), German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier (2ndL), UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (7thL), US Secretary of State John Kerry (5thR), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (4thR), Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Baodong (2ndR) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) wait before a meeting with 17 nations, the European Union and United Nations at the Hotel Imperial on October 30, 2015 in Vienna, Austria. Kerry and other leaders are in Vienna to discuss solutions to the conflict in Syria. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyone watching the catastrophe that Syria has become cannot help but be heartened by the recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. Long on principles and short on details, the resolution at least provides an agreed-upon framework and process for ending the civil war. In a way, fixing the Syrian problem has now gone from impossibly hopeless to tentatively hopeful, though the fate of the process to end the Syrian civil war now all depends on one very long shot — a U.N.-sanctioned road map that aims for a comprehensive settlement in which the Syrian polity emerges as stable, secure, cohesive, and well governed.

My skepticism about the fate of another international peace plan is, as usual, driven by a broken, angry, dysfunctional region in which Western — largely American — hopes and dreams clash with crueler Mideast realities and inconvenient truths. The region is literally littered with the remains of the schemes, dreams, and aspirations of great powers that believed wrongly that they could impose their will on small tribes. Syria, like Iraq and Afghanistan, may well be another graveyard where the West’s poorly implemented plans perish. In addition to the well-known challenges the U.N. process must overcome — what to do about President Bashar al-Assad and vetting Syrian opposition groups — there are other seemingly insurmountable obstacles that just don’t seem, well, surmountable, at least for now.

Here are eight to get you started.

The day-after problem

All civil wars end. In the case of Syria, that end may be a series of outcomes rather than one single comprehensive solution. Indeed it’s hard to see how you create a stable end state — a new Syria if you will — that avoids ongoing conflict, sectarian tensions, and the meddling of Syria’s neighbors and that produces a well-governed, inclusive polity that can heal the injustices and wounds of 40-plus years of Assad family rule and the current traumas and wounds of the civil war. All you need to do is read Liz Sly’s reporting for the Washington Post on the devastation of Kobani — one small piece of the Syrian tragedy — as a reflection of the wider Syrian catastrophe. Kobani is often touted as an example of a victory over the Islamic State by Syrian Kurds. But the price was devastating, Sly argues: “But in those four short months, much of the town was reduced to rubble. Barely a street or a building was untouched. Whole neighborhoods lie in ruins, their streets a ghostly echo of the life they once contained.”

Imagine 1,000 Kobanis. So far, according to a former Syrian minister, Abdallah al-Dardari, quoted in Sly’s article, the costs of the damage total $270 billion, and reconstruction of the country could cost an estimated $300 billion. This figure, as Sly points out, is roughly 10 times the U.S. reconstruction investment in Iraq. The human toll could be as high as 250,000 dead, a million wounded, likely more still traumatized, 7.6 million internally displaced, and 4 million having left the country.

Who’s going to pay for this and assume overall supervision for repairing a country that has been described by Dardari as “a pile of rubble”? And who (or what army or peacekeeping entity) is going to preside over this postwar catastrophe to guarantee stability? Arab peacekeepers, EU monitors, NATO? Or will it be left to likely still-divided Syrian militias?

Hopelessly unrealistic timetables

The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once remarked that in the Middle East there are no sacred dates. He was referring specifically to setting unrealistic deadlines for reaching Arab-Israeli peace agreements. But Rabin was also making a broader point. Middle Eastern time ticks according to a much slower and far less urgent clock. 

The fact is that Americans with a stake in what happens with Syria, Iraq, or the Arab-Israeli issue have a sense of time that reflects urgency and impatience driven by their own politics and a misplaced belief that deadlines can be used to focus the minds of those for whom the stakes are much higher and the way in which decisions are made is much slower. Far too often, Americans measure time in what I call “administration time” rather than Middle Eastern time, a metric that can be generational in character. In the case of the Vienna process of Syrian peace talks, the parties pledged to work on a cease-fire and agreed to begin formal negotiations on Jan. 1, 2016; within six months establish an agreed-upon process for internal governance and the drafting a new constitution; and within 18 months hold free and fair elections. This timetable is designed to at least launch a process and if successful would allow U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to leave office having changed the channel on Syria. But no one believes this timetable is real. A more reasonable one would borrow a page from the Iran deal and measure the prospects of a better future for Syria in years.

Where are the Arabs?

Syria is foremost a Syrian problem. But the Arab states bear a responsibility too. And though Jordan and Saudi Arabia have assigned roles in the Vienna process, one can only wonder what the Arab world is willing and able to do about Syria. The Arab states are too weak (Jordan, Lebanon), too pro-Assad (Egypt), too dysfunctional (Iraq), too susceptible to Iranian influence (Iraq and Lebanon), and too preoccupied with their own agendas (Saudi Arabia) to all pull in the same direction. Indeed, some are moving the other way. The Saudis are devoting military assets to what former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel describes as ‘‘a floundering and expensive” campaign in Yemen and are backing a number of Islamist groups in Syria that are nearly as radical as the Islamic State.

Jordan and Lebanon have played key roles in absorbing Syrian refugees. True, the Persian Gulf states, particularly Kuwait, have kicked in substantial sums for humanitarian aide. But the Gulf states have done next to nothing on refugee resettlement.

The Arab contribution to the air campaign against the Islamic State has been minimal and episodic, and recent efforts by the Saudis to form a 34-country “military alliance” against the Islamic State that includes countries like Togo, Benin, and the Comoros only serve to highlight Arab states’ fecklessness.

Indeed, it strains credulity to the breaking point to believe that the Arab states would play any meaningful military role in defeating the Islamic State, deploying peacekeepers, or even agreeing to a political solution that doesn’t somehow protect their own influence and interests first against Iran in the current Saudi-Iranian cold war. Whether and how Arab state ambitions and fears can be reconciled with Iran’s in a sovereign, stable Syria are very much open questions.

 Iran’s negative role

And certainly don’t count on Iran to play a consistently helpful role in Syria. If there are any regional benefits from the recently concluded P5+1 nuclear agreement with Tehran, they’ve yet to make themselves clear. Iran has backed the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. But the regime won’t abandon Assad easily lest it lose an Alawi ally in a sea of anti-Iranian Sunnis and the access that Syria provides for supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon. As for the Islamic State, Iran is using Shiites’ fear of the Sunni jihadis to increase their dependence on Teheran and is bucking up Hezbollah, Assad, and Iraq’s pro-Iranian Shiites to ensure that the Islamic State doesn’t erode Tehran’s influence in Iraq and Syria at the same time. As Ray Takeyh and Reuel Marc Gerecht argue, it would take the Islamic State’s growing influence among Iran’s Sunni minorities to toughen up Iran’s policies toward the Islamic state. Meanwhile Iran continues to play both sides of the Islamic State game: participating in the Vienna process but helping to defeat its goals too.

Russia’s agenda

Russian President Vladimir Putin is all over the map on Syria: making nice with French President François Hollande, engaging in a cold war with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, keeping one positive foot in the anti-Islamic State campaign and a negative one in the anti-Vienna process camp by supporting Assad. What Putin really wants out of Syria isn’t easy to sort out. Putin is using Syria to create a nationalist surge at home by showing off Russia’s military hardware, ensure that Russia has a role in the Syrian endgame, counter Western efforts to take out another ally of Russia, and make sure that if he can’t save Assad that Russia will still have close ties with the next Alawi leader and a strong relationship with the Syrian military. As for the Islamic State, he knows it’s a potential internal threat because of Russia’s own 25 million Muslims, and he has to appear tough in the wake of the Islamic State’s downing of the Russian airliner. But the Islamic State challenge also reinforces Putin’s view that efforts to get rid of Assad might strengthen the jihadis. Even though Putin wants Russia inside the Vienna process, and not outside, his actions to date still reflect a drag on that process, not a catalyst to make it succeed. Indeed, U.S.-Russia cooperation will be critical if the U.N.-sponsored Syrian peace process is going to have any chance to succeed.

Turkey’s pick-and-choose strategy

I’m no Turkey expert. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Ankara’s view of the Syria crisis is akin to choosing food from an old-style Chinese restaurant menu –choose one from column A and one from column B: close the Turkey-Syria border to the Islamic State but not all of it; hit the Islamic State occasionally but hammer the Kurds more. From the beginning of the Syria crisis, despite the Turks’ strong anti-Assad sentiments, they’ve engaged carefully and selectively in Syria. Priorities include avoiding a major military commitment of any kind in Syria, hammering the Kurds, worrying about U.S. efforts to support the Kurds in northern Syria, and being sensitive to Russian violation of their airspace while not being all that sensitive to smuggling and the flow of Islamic State oil and recruits across those same Turkish borders. Erdogan seems to measure everything in terms of domestic politics, and Turkey has gown more conservative and Islamist during his tenure. The ever prescient Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations has it right: Turkey could play a much more positive role in helping to solve the Syrian crisis but has chosen not to.

Where are the Syrian moderates?

The outside powers adhering to the Vienna process seem to agree on a broad set of principles about what kind of Syria they’d like to see. But with all due respect to the outsiders who once again risk externalizing the problem of another Arab state without sufficient attention to Syrian realities on the ground, the real question here is what Syrian themselves want and can accomplish in terms of a unified vision — forget the reality — of the Syrian polity. We’ll get some sense of the possibilities when, according to the U.N. process, the meetings between opposition and regime elements start to happen early in 2016.

Nowhere are the complexities that will beset a new Syria greater than the challenge of the Islamists. In a fascinating study produced by the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, a survey of the Syrian opposition found that 60 percent of the opposition is composed of Salafists or extremists, with as many as 15 of the most effective of these groups prepared to succeed the Islamic State. Of the 48 groups the analysts surveyed, a full 33 percent followed the same ideology as the Islamic State. And even more complicating is the cooperation between extreme Islamist and other opposition groups dictated not by ideology but by shared pragmatic objectives.

Distinguishing between so-called moderates and radicals isn’t so easy when Syrian rebels supplied with U.S. gear are cooperating with al-Nusra Front, a group Washington characterizes as a terrorist entity. Syria might be compared to an iceberg with only part of its mass (the Islamic State) exposed above the waterline and the remainder below composed not of secular pro-Western pragmatists but of Islamists whose core objectives are getting rid of Assad and establishing governance based on Islamic law.

Even if you could eliminate the Islamic State altogether, you’d still face the nation-wrenching realities of nearly five years of civil war and the fear, anger, and hatreds, as well as the hopes, aspirations, and current realities, in which Alawites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians find themselves. Can Kurdish gains, Sunni aspirations to become the ins having been the outs for so many years, and Alawi fears be reconciled and resolved in a functional stable state? If you have reasonable doubts (and you should), read much of what Syria expert Joshua Landis has written and posted on his extraordinary website (Syria Comment) on the fractiousness of the opposition, particularly Aron Lund’s terrific piece on the evolution of the Free Syrian armies (that’s plural).

Is Paris a game-changer for Syria?

The real question about the U.N. process is this: Has the morphing of the Islamic State into one of the world’s most successful terrorist organizations created enough urgency and will among the outsiders to constitute a new point of departure to push the insiders to ameliorate or even resolve the Syrian crisis, or are attacks in Paris, Sharm el-Sheikh, Mali, San Bernardino, and prospects of more terrorism just more cruel and violent turns in the long war against jihadi terrorism?

It has been just over a month since the carnage in Paris — not a long time in the grand scheme of things, to be sure. And we’ve seen evidence of both firm resolve and a business-as-usual mentality in the behavior of those Western and regional countries involved in the Syrian civil war. My hope would be for transformation; my experience tells me we’re in for more half-measures and transactional outcomes. This bloody play has simply too many actors, including the United States, with too many different agendas unwilling to make commitments to what is required: a comprehensive strategy to defeat the Islamic State, move Assad out of power, and create a new reality in which all Syrian sects and ethnic groups can feel represented and secure.

In a galaxy far, far away, perhaps in some parallel universe, the Vienna process might actually work as planned. But back here on Earth is a different matter.

Distracted, self-interested, risk-averse outsiders interacting with fractious, small tribes with sectarian hatreds and scores to settle against the backdrop of a broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East isn’t a good prescription for a solution. Indeed, it’s not just Syria; the Arab state is melting down in Libya and Yemen and is dysfunctional in Iraq and Lebanon.

Instead of solutions, think of outcomes. And if the United Nations can produce better ones, terrific. It just may — over time. But don’t look for Hollywood endings along the lines of nationwide cease-fires, elections, or new constitutions. There aren’t any. More likely, a year from now Obama will be packing up to leave the White House. And his adversaries — Assad, Putin, and Ali Khamenei — will still be engaged in the long, bloody Syria game and be preparing to welcome the next occupant with a new bag full of tricks and surprises.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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