Misdefining Syria’s Civil War

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PARIS – The agreement reached between the United States and Russia to eliminate
Syria’s chemical weapons ties the disarmament process to negotiations aimed at
ending the country’s civil war. That is surely a sensible approach. Unfortunately,
two major problems with the proposed Geneva-based process will prevent it from
achieving its goal. But an alternative formula might just work.

The first problem with the US-Russian approach is a failure to recognize the
constraints facing the warring parties. The current regime – maintained for more
than 40 years as a unitary, all-encompassing actor – has little leeway to offer
concessions: there is no such thing as a part-time dictatorship. Any political
agreement with the opposition would require the transfer of control of at least some
political, security, and economic resources that were previously controlled by
President Bashar al-Assad’s family and its inner circle.

A regime that is so heavily indebted to its supporters is highly unlikely to accept
such an outcome, which would reduce its ability to reward – and, more important, to
protect – its loyalists at home and abroad. For example, a post-conflict Syria in
which the opposition controls a substantial part of the state is unlikely to
maintain a strong relationship with Iran and Hezbollah.

The opposition is in a similar position, though for the opposite reason: it is far
from being a unitary actor. As a loose umbrella of very different groups, the
opposition would be likely to experience a dynamic similar to that on the government
side, with a power-sharing formula, however temporary and transitional, leaving
Assad’s opponents with fewer resources than they would have if they had full control
of the state. This alone would intensify conflict and divisiveness within the
opposition, potentially leading many within its ranks to reject any peace
settlement, prolonging the conflict.

The second problem with the US-Russian peace-process approach is its definition of
the parties to the conflict: the Assad regime and the opposition. Some segments of
Syrian society, particularly religious minorities, remain on the regime side for
fear of the unknown; but they do not trust the regime to safeguard their interests.
This is particularly true for Christians and Druze, but also for secular elements
within the Sunni majority.

What is needed is a shift in the way the conflict is perceived. The reality is that
both the regime and the opposition comprise a wide spectrum of groups that stand on
one side of the conflict or the other for a variety of group-specific reasons.

So far, the international community has recognized this diversity only on the
opposition side. This has allowed the regime to claim some legitimacy, while denying
intimidated third-party groups a voice. Thus, instead of insisting on a peace
process that brings the regime and the opposition together, the political path to
peace in Syria should bring the many different segments of Syrian society together,
regardless of which side of the conflict they are on.

Representatives of the Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds, and Sunnis, as well as
representatives of non-religious groups and smaller minorities, should go to Geneva
to help create a new political contract for a new Syria. Admittedly, choosing
representatives from each community will be a challenging task. But, because the
talks will aim for a broad national pact (agreeing on issues like freedom of speech
and religion) and a temporary transitional period of national-unity government, the
representatives can be “wise men” – men and women known to have the respect of their

This approach would circumvent the problem of selecting regime and opposition
representatives, which has so far prevented the Geneva talks from taking place.
Composing the negotiating teams along ideological, ethnic, and sectarian lines would
help to transcend the dichotomy of regime versus opposition. Groups that the regime
claims to represent could represent themselves directly, which might well create
incentives for them to disentangle themselves from their support for the regime.

Nonetheless, moving from a two-party negotiation process to a multiparty process has
its own hurdles. Multiparty negotiations tend to be more complicated and can drag on
indefinitely. But they are also more democratic and more representative, and skilled
negotiation design and facilitation can help to mitigate many of the challenges.

This is why it is important to set strict limits on the agenda. Agreement on, say, a
commitment to a multi-confessional, secular, and democratic state should be enough.
The framework for the transitional period can be borrowed from successful precedents
like those established in South Africa and, more recently, Yemen. United Nations
facilitators can help the parties involved reach agreements on a transitional
government and a roadmap to a new constitution, referendum, and elections.

The question is what happens until and during the dialogue. This is where the UN
Security Council can play an important role. It should be easier for all Security
Council members, especially China and Russia, to support a plan for an intra-Syrian
dialogue that brings all parties together. The Council would permit the use of
military power to enforce a cease-fire, regardless of the source of violations. Both
the US and Russia might go a step further by creating a joint operations center to
monitor a cease-fire and prevent new flows of arms or militants from entering the

The international community, especially the US, the European Union, China, and
Russia, along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, would have no role to play in an
intra-Syrian dialogue. But their support would be crucial, because they would pledge
to back any agreement coming out of the dialogue and reject any deal that implies
the country’s breakup. Without a pledge to preserve Syria’s unity, very few Syrians
would be willing to negotiate. And, without inclusive negotiations, the war will not

Sami Mahroum is Academic Director of Innovation and Policy at INSEAD.

Project Syndicate, 2013.

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