Taking a Step Forward on Syria

  • Mar 29, 2012

    Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria could be a step in the right direction. The plan calls for a Syrian-led political process under UN supervision to bring about a cessation of armed violence across the country. It also calls for dialogue between opposition forces and the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. President Assad formally accepted the plan on March 27, 2012. It has been a year since the start of protracted unrest in Syria, and there can be few illusions about the prospects of peace “breaking out” quickly and decisively in the short term. All of the alternatives to Annan’s plan—from “humanitarian buffer zones” to U.S.-led armed intervention—would create more problems than they would solve and would run the risk of backfiring disastrously. Yet something must be done; events in Syria have escalated at a pace and scale that run a serious risk of turning a protracted crisis into a regional nightmare.

    Deepening Syrian Dividing Lines

    A year of upheaval has cost Syrians thousands of lives in the face of a brutal crackdown by the Assad regime. The regime squandered several opportunities for reform and to settle the crisis in 2011. It did little to address the socioeconomic and political grievances of protestors in a country that has struggled with supporting the interests of its corporatist ruling elite, while trying to liberalize a fragile national economy. The Assad regime has also ignored past Arab League–inspired efforts to resolve the conflict. This is partly because the core of the Arab League—the Southern Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar—have sought to pressure and isolate the Alawite-led regime, going as far as calling for Assad’s ouster and supporting the opposition forces.

    Despite these efforts, the Assad regime and its security apparatus have proven to be far too resilient to ignore if any settlement of the crisis in Syria is to take shape in the short term. The Annan initiative—which enjoys the support of the entire Security Council, including Russia and China—differs from past Arab League and UN efforts in that it avoids calls for Assad to relinquish power and instead highlights the need for dialogue between the regime and opposition forces. Given the level of polarization and the balance of power inside Syria, any nonmilitary solution is preferable to the alternative.

    Opposition forces inside and outside Syria are divided about whether to support political dialogue with the regime. The Syrian National Council (SNC) has rejected any kind of dialogue with Assad. Other groups, including the Syria-based National Coordinating Council (NCC), are more flexible. These divisions could serve to complicate any UN-led peace effort that favors dialogue. That the militarization of antiregime forces has come at the expense of more moderate opposition forces only serves to make the task more daunting. More militant, as well as Islamist, forces are playing an increasingly critical yet uncertain role in the crisis.

    Meanwhile, the security response by the Assad regime may have undermined the armed opposition, but it will do little to roll back the cumulative effects of a year of protests and calls for regime change. Underlying sectarian divisions, which the Assad regime has sought to play up, have become all the more pervasive, and no amount of repression can easily reverse the fractures in Syrian society. Moreover, migrations, lasting memories of violence, national economic decline, and isolation will all challenge the regime for years to come, as will the hostility of neighboring Sunni Arab states—a problem that Syria’s increasingly visible dependence on Iran and possibly a Shi’ite-ruled Iraq are scarcely going to ease.

    Assad may yet hold on to power for some time and publicly state a commitment to step down at the end of his second term in 2014. At a rhetorical level, this would be in line with recent cosmetic changes to the constitution, limiting the presidency to two terms in office. It would also be a face-saving measure by the regime’s sectarian political and security backers, especially the Alawites and the country’s Christians. Getting a commitment that Assad will exit in 2014 would be viewed by some opposition forces and regional and international actors as a chance to maintain pressure without triggering a deeper crisis.

    While this option holds some promise, its probability for success is low, and it is unlikely to be supported by key stakeholders in the short term. Few expect Assad to honor his commitment to the Annan plan with concrete measures, and the regime views scaling back the security crackdown as a signal for opposition elements to come out in force. The polarization in and outside Syria is also too severe, and far too many have taken as fact that Assad will be exiting power soon—regardless of the probabilities of that happening at all, let alone in a way that preserves stability.

    Regional and International Players

    All of the challenges inside Syria are compounded by the uncertainties in how regional and international actors treat the country’s deepening instability, and there is no clear response to a crisis where options range from bad to worse.

    For the United States, experiences in Iraq since 2003 and Lebanon in the 1980s may be more useful comparisons than the recent case of Libya. Both Iraq and Lebanon, like Syria, have sectarian and other internal divisions and play a major role in Arab-Israeli and inter-Arab politics. Both are also arenas for competition between the United States and its regional allies and Iran. The U.S. position that Assad must step down, while significant, remains an exercise in hoping for the best rather than a credible response to the probability that the country’s internal balance of power may or may not shift. Like Iraq, instability and change in Syria would have significant consequences not only for U.S.-Iranian competition, but also for the regional balance of power in the Levant and the stability of states like Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

    The Southern Gulf states and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar—have grown increasingly critical of Syria as the cycle of violence has gone on unabated. They have also indicated a willingness to provide financial assistance and arms to aid the opposition. Sunni Gulf efforts to support opposition forces are driven in part by competition with Shi’a Iran and the need to address the concerns of their mainly Sunni populations. However, supporting opposition forces more directly with money and arms may not translate into a more stable Syria at peace with its neighbors in either the short or long term. Providing material support might trigger an even harsher crackdown by the Assad regime, more active Iranian support, and could make the forces buttressing the regime close ranks. There is also the risk of a more dangerous and less predictable Iranian response should Iran elect to confront the GCC states in the Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz.

    Iranian hopes that Syria can revert to the status quo ante ignore the fact that too many Syrians across multiple class and sectarian dividing lines have expressed their deep discontent with the current state of socioeconomics and politics in Syria. For Iran, the risks of Syrian instability include at least a partial loss of its ability to influence the Arab-Israeli conflict or to provide support via Syria to militant Palestinians and Iran’s Shi’a allies in Lebanon, chief among them Hezbollah. Iran is allegedly providing assistance to the Assad regime as it tries to suppress the latest round of protests. But there is only so much Iran can do to influence the course of events in Syria, and Iran finds itself in a mainly Sunni Arab Middle East that has fewer and fewer reasons to emulate the Islamic Republic.

    Although some Israeli policymakers have publicly supported political shifts in Syria, many continue to doubt the prospects for a stable transition and view change in Syria as the latest chapter of an increasingly negative cycle of regional unrest. Syria under Ba’ath rule has been a largely predictable factor in Israel’s national security calculus. Meanwhile, there is no real-world basis on which to make the argument that a post-Assad Syria will make peace with Israel, renounce claims to the Golan Heights, or stop providing assistance to Palestinian elements operating inside and outside the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

    Turkey is concerned about deepening escalation in Syria and the risks of spillover effects. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been more vocal than most in his criticism of Assad and was among the first to distance himself from the embattled leadership in Damascus. However, that has not translated into easy or decisive policy options for a country that shares an 800-kilometer border with Syria, relies on its neighbor for overland trade to the Southern Gulf, and fears Kurdish separatist resurgence at home, in Syria, and in Iraq. The cost of garnering Sunni Arab public opinion has also been high in other ways. That the Assad regime has proven more resilient than expected has complicated Turkey’s approach. The other challenge is that Ankara no longer has viable diplomatic channels to Damascus. This has given a far more prominent role to other players—such as Russia and China—in trying to manage the Syrian crisis.

    Diplomacy in the Face of Protracted Uncertainty

    If there is a lesson from the past, it is that all the competing outside powers need to be extremely cautious about the assumption that they can change the regime in Syria in any predictable or stable way—particularly by using force to try to shape outcomes in a nation with no coherent opposition and no practical democratic experience.

    The Annan peace effort has few near-term chances to succeed, given divisions at all levels of the crisis, the lack of trust among competing Syrian forces, and the absence of clear paths to national stability for Syria. However, given the regional risks, supporting a sustained diplomatic effort to tackle the crisis and humanitarian efforts to limit the impact of its violence remain better options than the alternatives. All the options currently facing Syria are bad, but a UN-brokered peace process may be the best of the lot.
    The need for diplomacy has become all the more critical as two key dynamics have become increasingly central in the Syrian situation. The first is that events in Syria have grown more closely linked to Western and Arab Gulf competition with Iran. The second, which is also linked to competition with Iran, is the reality that a deepening crisis in Syria straddles broader regional Sunni-Shi’a fault lines, as well as the Kurdish issue, and the full range of tensions in Lebanon and Iraq. Syria now plays a dangerous role in all these divisions, which have grown to be nearly intractable and pose real challenges for a Middle East caught in a cycle of spiraling escalation.

    Aram Nerguizian is a visiting fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joy Aoun is a research associate with the CSIS Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.   

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Aram Nerguizian