Full confession: this is the third thing I’ve written about Syria in the last two days mostly because I knew I was going on TV to talk about it this afternoon and I wanted to get my own thoughts straight before I did that. I used you all as a sounding board, basically. Sorry.
Anyway, since I feel like I was being uncharacteristically optimistic in my last two posts, here’s the more pessimistic version of the story. We’re at a particular moment in time where all the major players in Syria (leaving out the irredeemable ones like ISIS and Nusra) have both reason and opportunity to coalesce around a political compromise to end that country’s four year long civil war, transition it from the Assad kleptocracy to an actual representative government, and focus entirely on defeating extremists. But will they? Probably not. Compromise requires will in addition to reason and opportunity, and it doesn’t appear that the will exists on the part of the rebels and their Saudi and Turkish supporters to acquiesce to a role for Bashar al-Assad in whatever transitional government is formed in that interim period.
Will isn’t the only problem though. The fact is, and this became very clear to me as I was on TV listening to a member of the Syrian National Coalition talk about the need for Assad to go right now, that nobody has any idea what that transitional government should look like with or without Assad. Convincing Assad to go as a precondition to a negotiated settlement is going to be next to impossible (he’s still in no immediate danger and has no reason to voluntarily give up), but even if he would somehow agree to that, what then? Who gets to form the next Syrian government? Which groups should be represented? Who should represent them? Under what legal basis will decisions like that be made? Nobody seems to know, and until specific decisions like that start being made, it’s hard to see how all the various factions involved in the war are going to be convinced to put their differences aside.
A third problem comes back to Assad, and the fact that his motives (and those of his backers) are always and understandably going to be considered suspect. Remember that ceasefire that was implemented in Zabadani earlier this week? Well, the local peace talks around that ceasefire have now broken down, because Assad and Iran were proposing a population swap:
If an agreement had been reached it would have been the first time the warring sides had agreed to transfer besieged communities as part of a deal in the Syrian conflict.
The mainly Sunni residents of Zabadani would have been be taken to rebel-controlled areas in northern Syria, while the Shia residents of Fua and Kefraya would be taken to territories under the control of the regime.
This is the kind of thing you propose when you’re trying to partition a country. That’s what the rebels accused Assad and Iran of planning, and they’re probably right. Partitioning the country is the only way Assad can keep himself in power indefinitely, and while that’s not the ideal outcome for him or his Russian/Iranian pals, it’s an outcome that they might be able to live with. But the rebels don’t want to partition the country; for one thing, they’d lose Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, and for another, they’re slowly but surely winning the war. Why should they concede to divvy up the country? Why would anybody but Assad want to see Syria divided into a collection of smaller, even less stable states? A partition doesn’t deter ISIS in the least, but it does multiply the potential for internal conflict and dysfunction. I mean, at the risk of downplaying partitioning’s great recent success stories, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Eritrea, and South Sudan, but this is the kind of thing that sometimes seems good on paper but rarely plays out well in the real world.
So despite all the activity going on right now, I’d still put the chances of serious progress being made toward Syrian peace in the “very slim” category. Even though the stars are aligned just right for a Syrian deal to come together, there are still some major obstacles standing in the way.
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