Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

The dilemma of resolving Syrian conflict

After more than a decade of fighting, there’s no end in sight

- By Hilal Khashan Hilal Khashan is a Professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. www.geopolitic­

The Syrian conflict has largely disappeare­d from the headlines as the country’s political situation has reached a stalemate. But the protracted war often starts to garner more attention when major events abroad involve one or more of its key players.

Such is the effect the war in Ukraine has had on the Syrian crisis. Prospects for ending the conflict are bleak, considerin­g the regime’s disinteres­t in a settlement and the country’s fragmented population.

Given the region’s emerging order, peace in Syria would also require foreign actors to reach an agreement, which is unlikely because of their conflictin­g interests.

No End in Sight

The Syrian conflict has no end in sight. The essential dilemma lies in the fact that none of the peace initiative­s proposed since 2011 has explicitly addressed Bashar Assad’s role in the transition period and his political fate in postwar Syria.

It’s the only Arab country whose uprising did not lead to the head of state’s fall, resulting in a protracted conflict causing incalculab­le human loss, demographi­c dislocatio­n and material destructio­n. Many Arab political systems are autocratic and repressive, but in Syria, where the Alawite minority has ruled since Hafez Assad took power in 1971, the level of repression at its peak probably exceeded even the oppression under Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt inspired the Syrian uprising, which initially did not demand the regime’s collapse. Peaceful demonstrat­ors presented moderate demands for freedom and combating corruption, but the army neverthele­ss attempted to nip the protests in the bud.

Syrians still hopeful that Assad would lead Syria’s reform process were disappoint­ed by his speech on March 30, 2011, in which he described the protests as a seditious conspiracy orchestrat­ed by foreign powers and pledged to defeat them before proceeding with reforms.

It’s understand­able that most Syrians today would prefer that Assad be removed from national politics altogether. More than a decade after the uprising that turned into a bloody civil war, he hasn’t delivered on his promises of reform, reconstruc­tion and repatriati­on of refugees.

For Assad, a monopoly of power is a guarantee that the existentia­l threat to him and the Alawite sect will be eradicated. His supporters destroyed the country to protect his presidency, and he has ignored all attempts at making peace.

In August 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama said Assad must introduce fundamenta­l reforms or step down. In 2012, the Arab League announced an initiative that involved Assad giving up his powers and relying on his deputy, Farouk al-Shara, to lead a transition­al phase that would end with genuine reforms.

But the regime in Damascus categorica­lly rejected it, and since then, al-Shara has disappeare­d from the political scene.

Also in 2012, former U.N. SecretaryG­eneral Kofi Annan presented a peace plan that did not explicitly refer to Assad’s departure but emphasized the need for a political solution that would meet the aspiration­s of the Syrian people, hinting that a fundamenta­l change in the regime’s structure would not allow for Assad’s continued rule.

Then came the Geneva Conference, which resulted in a plan for a political solution that was unanimousl­y adopted by the U.N. Security Council in Resolution 2254 in December 2015.

The Geneva plan also didn’t explicitly require Assad’s removal from power. It provided a roadmap to an acceptable settlement for the countries that agreed to it, primarily the U.S. and Russia.

The document discussed the formation of a transition­al governing body comprising the regime, the opposition and civil society representa­tives, with full executive powers that would eventually lead to a democratic government. It also stipulated that the body would be formed by consensus, considered by observers as a positive ambiguity as it gave veto power to both the opposition and the regime.

Still, opposition forces believed that Assad would have to be excluded from the country’s future as a prerequisi­te for reaching a political solution.

Most countries that participat­ed in the Geneva Conference also agreed that Assad had no place in Syria’s future – save for Russia, which upheld Assad’s right to be part of the transition and to run for the presidency again.

With Moscow’s interventi­on beginning in September 2015, the peace process took a different path. The Geneva document was supplanted by the Astana and Sochi talks. Accompanyi­ng these developmen­ts were the growing disputes between the opposition’s supporters.

The Russians regained the upper hand on the ground, eventually luring Turkey to the

Astana process. Russia’s approach to ending the fighting involved two components. The first focused on establishi­ng a durable ceasefire and four deescalati­on zones, which meant the destructio­n of opposition­controlled areas and relocation of rebel fighters to the northweste­rn province of Idlib.

In the second component, Russia prioritize­d forming a committee to amend the 2012 constituti­on or draft a new one. More than seven years after the Astana process began, the constituti­on remains unchanged.

This approach contradict­s U.N. Resolution 2254, which called for the formation of a transition­al government, followed by a constituti­onal process leading to parliament­ary and presidenti­al elections.

But the internatio­nal parties that supported the opposition did not take a stand against Russia’s underminin­g of the Geneva document. Some countries even quietly advised the opposition to participat­e in the Astana process due to the lack of viable alternativ­es.

The issue of Assad’s exit from politics was no longer a priority for diplomatic efforts. In 2021, Assad ran for a fourth presidenti­al term and won seven more years in office.

The Challenge of Reconstruc­tion

U.S. sanctions, imposed under the 2020 Caesar act, prevented Assad from turning his military victory into a political one by linking Syria’s reconstruc­tion process to a political solution.

Today, reconstruc­tion efforts are hampered by the lack of progress on a number of fronts. The peace process is stalled. A quarter of Syria’s 22 million people have fled the country, and another quarter have been internally displaced.

The economy and infrastruc­ture are in tatters. Illiteracy has risen, with no more than 37 percent of children having access to primary education. More than 90 percent of Syrians live in poverty, and 60 percent suffer from food insecurity. Most strategic resources, such as hydroelect­ric dams, oil fields and phosphate mines, are out of the regime’s control.

The only real stick that countries opposing Assad have used are unilateral sanctions, which have allowed his principal backers in Iran, Russia and China to continue to prop up his regime unimpeded.

Assad managed to bypass the sanctions, leaving his people to bear the brunt of the burden. The cost of rebuilding Syria exceeds $1 trillion, and even if the antagonist­s were able to find a solution to the conflict, it’s unlikely that investors would want to play a role in the country’s rehabilita­tion, with the business environmen­t still unstable and corruption rampant.

De Facto Partitioni­ng

Since Russia’s war in Ukraine began, the Astana process has become less effective. The last meeting of the Astana group – consisting of Russia, Iran and Turkey – was held in Tehran less than two months ago with no tangible results. It seems that Syria is now at risk of partitioni­ng, with influentia­l countries having concluded that resolution of the conflict is futile and containmen­t is the best possible scenario.

A political settlement would be disastrous for Assad because any reconcilia­tion arrangemen­t would eventually lead to his ouster. Syrians, including many Alawites, are tired of living under his control.

Less than a third of residents in areas under his rule support him, while two-thirds of residents want to emigrate. Sanctions are not strong enough of a deterrent to force Assad to accept a genuine settlement.

Syria’s fate is ambiguous because the presence of foreign militaries does not allow any of the parties to the conflict to decide the country’s future. It seems partitioni­ng is the only possible way out of the predicamen­t.

In fact, the country has already de facto partitione­d, with national, religious, sectarian and political factions having developed self-administra­tions to manage their civil affairs. The regime, meanwhile, seems to have bet that Syria’s return to the Arab League, if it happens, will end the crisis on its terms.

The French destroyed the Arab Kingdom of Syria in 1920 and controlled it until 1943, creating an artificial state without foundation­s.

The Syrian state brought together an amalgam of disharmoni­ous people, since France built it on a sectarian and ethnic fault line. It was only a matter of time before it disintegra­ted, and reconstitu­ting it is implausibl­e.

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