How Does The Syrian Civil War End?
Not for a long time, and not through political pressure alone
The Syrian regime is under the world’s glare, and it’s hopefully enough to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again in the future. The greater problem, however, will be ending Syria’s civil war before it claims the lives of another 110,000 people.
The next step is the much-discussed peace process, an effort touted by Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s crafty foreign minister. But despite the international community’s constellations of sanctions, diplomatic pressure and “expert mediation” — from Kofi Annan to Lakhdar Brahimi — little progress has been made in the search for peace.
While history can be cruel, it has proved at least one thing: civil wars typically end in one of two ways. Either with the defeat of one side, or a perpetual (and costly) stalemate that leads to peace negotiations. They almost never end through political pressure alone.
The nature of Syria’s 29-month battle makes victory by Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad, or the opposition, unlikely. Battles on the streets of Aleppo or Homs illustrate near constant guerrilla warfare, as rebel insurgents continue to frustrate Assad’s military and security services.
Because these small pockets of resistance can strike without warning and enjoy the support of the community, the rebels, with comparatively low investment, can continue to frustrate the military’s efforts to “pacify” the uprising. The rebels, meanwhile, are divided and fighting each other in addition to the regime. “Neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side,” Qadri Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister, told The Guardian on Sept. 20. “This zero balance of forces will not change for a while.”
Neighbor against neighbor
For American audiences, this type of warfare is familiar. Tactics used by the opposition in Syria are similar to those used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan — forces that exacted incredible human and economic costs from the world’s foremost military power. With additional support, in the form of arms flowing in from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and potentially France, the rebels will likely continue the fight for the foreseeable future.
However, Syria has one of the Middle East’s most professionally trained militaries. As overlapping allegiances (religious and classist) tie most military personnel directly to the minority government of Bashar Al Assad, the armed forces show little sign of fracture or collapse.
But even conclusion by victor, if possible, is not without considerable cost.
The dissolution of the rebels, for instance, would likely lead to a period of retributive justice perpetuated by the Assad regime — a systematic roundup of the known or suspected opposition combined with public show trials of “dissidents,” “terrorists” and “enemies of the state” concluding with draconian punishments. These actions would keep tensions simmering silently, waiting for a moment to boil over again.
Photographer Bryan Denton, working for The New York Times, deftly captured the process in reverse while covering another post-conflict state, Libya. In one image, abandoned cars in various stages of disarray, lined the deserted road of a pro-government town. In the caption, Denton noted the worrisome vacancy of cities —like this—that once bustled with people who had supported Muammar Gaddafi. The government’s collapse, and Gaddafi’s death, led many to flee in fear of violence.
This is one of the more troubling aspects of civil wars. Because they often pit neighbors against one another, these wars leave their psychological imprint on the ones who remain. The Rwandan genocide followed a three-year-long civil war between the government (Hutu) and the opposition (Tutsi) forces. When wars end, lines in the sand become fixed, and the space between is usually marked with blood.
But if “decisive victory” in Syria remains unlikely, is it possible to establish peace through other means?
In expert circles, negotiators cite the importance of “fertile moments” —periods in which parties to conflict are most likely to agree to peace talks. It goes without saying, parties who view negotiations as unnecessary or poorly aligned with their interests, are unlikely to support any substantive discussions on peace.
In Syria, the conditions make such discussions particularly challenging.
According to J. Michael Greig, associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas, Syria finds itself in the “worst of all possible worlds.” The fighting has destroyed any possibility for dialogue between the warring parties, but the conflict has not yet reached a condition called a “hurting stalemate” — a position where both parties admit their cause cannot be furthered by continued fighting.
In a hurting stalemate, the parties see negotiation as a means to potential rewards. They both need to agree their respective parties will benefit before either will sit down at the table. And we aren’t there yet.
For the intervention-inclined, the recent face-saving rapprochement between Russia, the United States and Syria may have signaled a missed opportunity to change this reality.
Pres. Obama’s initial support for military action was championed by some Syrian rebels who believed that even limited air strikes by the U.S. could tip the balance of force in their favor. That advantage, if used effectively, could have increase the rebels fighting power, potentially pushing both parties towards a “hurting stalemate.”
In addition, the last two weeks have seen reports of U.S. arms reaching the rebels. While some believe it’s too little, too late, these weapons can play a role in upsetting the power relations between the parties.
“The Syrian Military Council is receiving so little support that any support we receive is a relief,” Khaled Saleh, spokesperson for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told The Washington Post.
The rebel contingent will also continue to benefit from the influx of foreign fighters who have arrived to stand and do battle. While a clear picture of the opposition is nearly impossible to paint, the group includes at least 50,000 members of the non-sectarian Free Syrian Army, 50,000 Islamist fighters (39,000 from the Syrian Liberation Front and 13,000 of the Syrian Islamic Front) and — the most concerning for Western politicians — Jabhat Al Nusrah, a product of post-war Iraq that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, which continues to collect soldiers from the other opposition forces. Over time, these fighters could have an important impact on the balance of power in Syria.
But here’s the catch: even if their involvement leads to a “hurting stalemate” —where mediation is more likely— the makeup of the opposition itself might undermine any chance to negotiate for peace.
Who gets to sit at the table
In the case of Al Nusra, a group explicitly affiliated with an international terrorist group, it is unlikely the Assad regime — much less the Obama administration— will consider them legitimate parties at any negotiations. greater number of people at the negotiating table, the less likely they are too agree.
Others contend that these hypotheticals are simply unnecessary — that Assad is not in a position to negotiate, and won’t ever be.
“Any concession now would run counter to the Assad family’s ruling ethos,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert, told The Washington Post last year. “It would show weakness, and the nature of his regime is that you never show weakness.”
With control of the country at stake, Assad understands that any power granted to the opposition is power he must personally relinquish.
But despite viewing each other as existential threats, Assad and the opposition might be forced to moderate their positions under the weight of continued suffering.
In a paper published in 2012, Greig shows that conflicts are more likely to become “ripe” for negotiation after 130 months of fighting has lapsed, or more than 30,000 battle deaths have occurred — optimally both. According to the Observatory for Human Rights, nearly 22,000 fighters have been killed in Syria to date.
If the lessons are true, renewed engagement in potential peace negotiations might soon be more fruitful than feckless.
Regardless of the complexity of a conflict, however, peace agreements are rarely sufficient to assuage the parties’ security concerns as the fog of war slowly settles. Moreover, because trust between the parties will be so low, there is little belief that signed ledgers and treaties can keep the proverbial bayonets at bay.
As a result, any negotiation will likely require an international guarantor — be it an intergovernmental organization like the U.N., or a compact of other actors — to safeguard against disaster. It is in this light that the recent weeks’ diplomatic proceedings and U.N. Security Council meetings should be viewed. At a critical juncture — the “what’s next?” moment — the U.S. should use the U.N. to its greatest advantage.
This means working through the over-stretched institution, empowering the member states to rubber-stamp any action taken against Syria engagement, and —through the careful crafting of resolutions— creating new “rules of the game” for Assad. While Obama’s “red line” may have failed, boundaries, particularly those underwritten by a compact of international states, have been more effective at containing threats than unilateral intervention anyway.
“For all its obvious failings, the United Nations system has made for a more peaceful world than the one that preceded it,” writes Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro in a recent op-ed for The New York Times.
But if the U.N. will be expected to take responsibility after war ends, it will need to play a role in ending it. What that role is, however, is still up for negotiation.
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