The Future of Syria

By Rouba al-Fattal on May 18, 2012


In February the Russia Federation and the People’s Republic of China lay their cards on the table. They vetoed a UN Security Council draft resolution on the Arab League’s Plan for resolving the Syrian crisis which calls for President Bashar al-Assad to hand power to his vice-president, proposes the formation of a unity government,and holding free parliamentary elections within two months. Both China and Russia are putting their money on Mr. Assad, betting that he can overcome both the political opposition movement and growing rebel forces spreading across his country if he is given enough time.

Indeed, the actions of both nations contradict their stance in 2005 which approved the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, which allows the international community to intervene peacefully or militarily in cases where a government commits genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, or ethnic cleansing against its own people.Currently, they both insist that Mr. Assad is fighting armed rebel groups and Al-Qaida, that both the regime and the opposition groups are equally responsible for the escalating violence in the country, and that the crisis can be solved through peaceful negotiations between Assad and the opposition.

Strategic interests in the region as well as the fear of domestic uprisings within Russia and China are explanations behind the two countries positions. Although Russia might still change its views on international intervention in Syria once President Putin secures his position in power, it remains unclear if China is willing to change its mind in that issue. At the same time, one must not overestimate the zeal of Western actors to intervene in the Syrian case (especially militarily)because there are growing concerns among these actors that any intervention in Syria might lead to unknown if not catastrophic results that would affect the region as a whole.

​Therefore, the latest developments within the UN Security Council toward the Syriandossier as well as Western hesitation in intensifying its intervention have left the door wide open for different scenarios which could lead to vastly different outcomes in the future.

​The first scenario involves stepping up targeted sanctions against the government. These strong measures include: freezing of the assets of the Syrian Central Bank and individuals associated with the Assad regime, travel bans on the Assad family and those who support the regime, oil boycotts, and prohibitions on exports of equipment to Syria, including software, thus limiting the Assad regime in monitoring telephone and Internet communications. The main objective of these sanctions is to isolate the regime and turn the Syrian business class against Assad.  

​The second scenario involves setting up a 'Friends of Syria' (FOS) package that would provide a formal recognition of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and bolster it with moral and/or financial support. The first meeting of the FOS took place in Tunisia in February 2012, and accepted the SNC as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change, but it fell short of giving it exclusive recognition.Still, the importance of this initiative lies in its ability to unify the Syrian opposition which is a vital step towards the success of the revolution. In this case, Turkey, the US, and the EU need to play the supervisory role.

​The third scenario is focused on providing a corridor through which international bodies such as the Red Cross can convey humanitarian aid. The FOS group demanded that the Syrian regime immediately permit humanitarian agencies to deliver vital relief goods and services tocivilians affected by the violence, but the intervention falls short of providing military protection to these agencies or the affected population.

​The forth scenario is based on establishing a no-fly-zone, similar to the situation in Libya, and sending a peacekeeping mission (provided and overseen by either the Arab League or the international community). The no-fly-zone could be limited or it could also be accompanied by targeted destruction of Syria's air defenses, although this is much harder to do in Syria than in Libya - with the former having more sophisticated weaponry and stronger international allies.

​The fifth Scenario includes training and equipping the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This could lead to a military coup d'etat especially if highly ranked military officers start to defect. The problem with this option is opposition forces remain small and fragmented - with some allegedly having links with Al-Qaeda. And there have been disturbing  reports of extremists who have infiltrated the opposition groups while groups linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq have beenextending their reach into Syria. Another major concern is the uncertainty surrounding thechemical weapons sites in Syria that would become extremely vulnerable should Assad lose hishold on power. Hence, securing these chemical sites before arming the FSA and knowing exactly who is being armed is a major issue.

​The sixth scenario involves militarization of the conflict with full-scale international military intervention, as in the case of Libya. Although this option can be carried out with or without Russia’s and China’s approval at the UNSC, it might lead to a dangerous and chaotic path with unclear consequences. Western states realise they cannot take the same measures they took in Libya. For one, Syria has four times the population of Libya and one-tenth the landscape.Also, the fighting is largely urban, meaning air power would be less effective against Syrian tanks and more likely to cause civilian casualties. It's also widely believed that Syria has a largerand better-equipped military than Libya. In addition, NATO naval military bases lay directlyacross the Mediterranean from Libya, making the operation more feasible. In addition, the dangers of an internationalisation of the conflict are too great, with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and possibly China standing with Syria against NATO and Israel. This intervention is also likely to require putting boots on the ground that could lead to problems encountered already in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another concern is if Assad would to turn his chemical weapons against his own people in order to retain power. This is another good reason for trying to accelerate his departure and turn the military, his allies and the business community against him.

​The seventh scenario focuses on mediated talks between Mr. Assad and the opposition. Although few of the opposition groups as well as Russia are calling for this option the concessions given so far by Mr. Assad seem to be too little and too late to satisfy the demands of the protesters. Because of the unremitting nature of the regime's repression, any discussion of a negotiated settlement that leaves Assad in power until the end of his presidential term in 2014 is not only a waste of time, but it could also lead to a protracted civil war. That said, seeing thedifficulty of securing a military intervention in the near future and in order to stop the bloodshed in the country, a face-saving departure package would need to be put in place for Assad – as it was for Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh – and every effort must be made to persuade him to leavepower as soon as possible. But who should broker these talks? As the Arab League appears to be divided on its position towards the Assad and the UN lacking any political muscle with the Russian and Chinese pro-Assad position, this role is best left for a person with particular experience in brokering peacekeeping deals. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wasrecently appointed the joint United Nations-Arab League envoy on the Syrian crisis with a mandate to bring an end to the violence and promote a peaceful political solution.

​One thing is for sure, the longer the Syrian crisis persists the worse the outcomes will be. Domestically we are looking at deeper sectarian rifts and civil descent, followed by civil war anda country sliding into a failed state status. Regionally this could lead to other evolutions in theArab world such as regional disintegration, regional alignments (with Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah siding with Syria) and instability spillover that could reach Lebanon and Israel.Therefore, the Syrian opposition must unite their positions and coordinate their efforts with the Friends of Syria group to move quickly to a transitional pluralist government that will make way for proper and lasting democratic reforms which will ensure domestic and regional stability.



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