The Mirage of the Syria Peace Process

Share

The Geneva II Syria Peace Conference is set to take place on January 22, 2014, though even if a resolution is passed, it seems incredibly unlikely that any changes would be instituted on the ground in Syria. First, there is no wholly recognized delegation representing the rebel forces, thus rendering any representative at the peace conference essentially powerless. Second, aside from the complete removal of Assad, no draft resolution will be able to fully appease opposition forces. Third, the lack of political interest in Washington on Syria means that any resulting settlement will be as toothless as Obama’s “red line.” The current peace talks are essentially the U.S. and Europe creating the illusion of progress, when in fact they’re all but abandoning the Syrian people in the hopes of avoiding another intervention in the Middle East.

Too little, too late

As the political and military landscape in Syria becomes increasingly violent, the options for the West to intervene continue to dwindle. When the United States first looked at possible inventions, its hesitation lied in the fear of accidentally arming Islamic jihadists that in the future could become enemies of the U.S. (not unlike what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion). Globally, Assad’s use of excessive force on his own people has been condemned by the members of the Friends of Syria Group, with world leaders supporting Assad’s removal from power. That rhetoric has died recently though, as the prospect for Assad’s removal from power seems to be waning.

In the time it has taken world leaders to congregate and waste time negotiating the details of the removal of Assad’s chemical stockpiles, the conditions on the ground in Syria have gotten worse. Regionally, fighting has increased in Lebanon, as Sunni fighters seek to distract Hizbollah in an attempt to weaken their capacity to fight dual fronts. In western Iraq, al-Qaeda has moved in and penetrated the Syrian border, where rebel infighting is still on the rise. In Syria, opposition groups are divided along lines of ideological radicalness, where al-Qaeda linked groups are quickly co-opting the conflict and taking advantage of contested territories.

The future of Syria

So now it becomes necessary to confront the question of who the world wants as the post-conflict leader of Syria? The Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front clearly prefer a Syria ran by somebody outside of the Assad family, however, at the current rate, it seems the world is preparing for Assad’s continued tenure. The other option is the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power and an interim opposition government be installed. Given the infiltration of al-Qaeda into the Syrian conflict, as well as the fragmented nature of the disparate rebel groups, determining a legitimate rebel leader is extremely difficult. As it stands right now, Ahmed Jarba, head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is the best political figure of the Syrian opposition. Jarba himself has doubts about the intentions of global leaders as seen in this statement:

“It is possible to hold [the conference], yet it is impossible for it to succeed. If they want to hold the conference for the sake of media [propaganda] so that cameras can show the world’s foreign ministers gathering, in an attempt to prove to the world that the president and members of the Syrian opposition are sitting with representatives of the Syria regime and to just have every speaker deliver a speech and leave, this is shameful. I feel that this is what many foreign ministers want. Then, after all of this they tell the Syrians: Leave now, while the fighting is going on. This does not work and will prove ineffective in light of the current situation.”

It needs to be remembered that when the Syrian uprising first began, it was Assad who threw the first stone at peaceful demonstrators. After years of coercion and oppression, and then the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, it is curious that the U.S. agreed to engage in negotiations to remove his chemical arsenal. The UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said during Geneva I that a quick resolution was necessary to end the conflict, and pointed blame at Russia and China for blocking UNSC motions and refused to call for Assad’s removal. Hague went further to say that the West’s expected outcome could only be achieved with agreement and consent from the National Coalition. Secretary Kerry agreed that this is no way includes Bashar al-Assad.

Geneva II will fail and the fighting and bloodshed in Syria will continue until world leaders take decisive action, something they should have done years ago. In the same way that the world intervened in Libya to depose Qaddafi, strategic airstrikes at the start of the Syrian conflict could have allowed for a quick end to Bashar al-Assad’s reign of terror against his own people.

Solution

Much like how Saudi Arabia harbored Ben Ali of Tunisia, one solution for world leaders might be to allow Bashar al-Assad to seek asylum in a country allied with Syria, perhaps Iran. Whether he is tried for war crimes and violations of human rights should be addressed at a later date by the United Nations or the ICC.

But to begin the process of healing and reconstruction, Assad must not stay in power. He ruled with an iron fist before the war and there is no reason to suggest he would change things after. To make the billions of dollars and countless lost lives be not a total waste, it is critical that the Syrian people are given the opportunity to rebuild their country in their own vision. As we’ve witnessed in post-Mubarak Egypt, or postwar Iraq, it is not easy rebuilding a state; but this process must be taken one step at a time and the first step is an end to the fighting which can only be done with the removal of Assad from power. World leaders should give him two options:

1) Leave voluntarily and seek asylum within an allied country (Russia seems to be fond of granting asylum to criminals); or 2) Retain his post as president and risk the consequences of a globally unified opposition force.

Historic summary of the Assad regime

Syria has historically been a diverse country with deep ethnic, sectarian and urban-rural divisions that has made statewide unification a struggle for its past rulers. When Hafez al-Assad came to power, he did so through climbing the ranks of the military, which with his ties to the military, later translated into extreme oppression with coercion being the key to stability. With a model of nation building characterized by authoritarianism and minority rule, Assad maintained tight control by appointing his family members to high political positions and enabling a complex network of security agencies. By spying on his population and creating a bunker economy closed off from capitalism that resulted in low development, Assad was able to maintain control through fear and coercion. When his son Bashar al-Assad rose to power after his death in 2000, Bashar thought he was able to garner popular support through modernization reforms. This, however, was unacceptable to the Baath Party who instructed Assad to tighten his political stance. Eventually, this would all lead to a Syria trapped under a state of fear, coercion, and poverty, ultimately leading to the protests that sparked the Syrian Civil War.