It is not too early

UN special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said Friday in Moscow of the Russian Foreign Minister:

I think Sergey Lavrov is absolutely right that the conflict is not only more and more militarized, it is more and more sectarian…And if we are not careful and if the Syrians are not careful, it will be a mainly sectarian conflict.

The day was a particularly bloody one:  more than 200 people are said to have been killed in Homs.

The fear of sectarian conflict is well-founded.  No matter how many times Syrians tell me that their revolution is not sectarian and aims at a civil state and open, democratic society in which all citizens are equal, the normal mechanisms of violent conflict lend themselves to increasing polarization along sectarian lines.  I am afraid, so I seek safety where I can find it, which for Alawites and some other minorities is with the government while Sunnis seek protection from the Free Syrian Army.

Of course there are Sunnis who fight for the Syrian government and minorities who fight for the rebels, but there will be fewer and fewer as time passes.  Then when Assad goes, individuals will try to recover property and seek revenge for the harm done to themselves and their families, even if the more organized and disciplined military units on both sides remain disciplined.  Revenge killing spirals quickly, polarizing people further and driving them into the arms of their family, tribe, sect or ethnicity.  Building a state on the ruins of a fragmented society is far more difficult than anyone imagines in advance.

That’s why I also welcome something else Brahimi said:

Perhaps a peacekeeping force may be acceptable. But it must be part of a complete package that begins with peacekeeping and ends with an election.

This is the first I’ve seen the obvious mentioned at his level:  peacekeeping forces are going to be needed in Syria.  They will be needed not only to protect minorities but also to support the post-war state-building effort.  We’ve seen in Libya what happens when the new state does not have a monopoly on the means of violence.  Extremists of all sorts, including Al Qaeda franchisees, set up shop.  State-building without a monopoly on the means of violence becomes a dicey proposition.  There will be more than two armed forces in Syria at the end of the civil war:  Syrian army, local militias, regime Shabiha, Free Syria Army, Jabhat al Nusra and other jihadi extremists.

The issue in Syria is where peacekeeping troops can be found.  Even if they are needed, that does not mean they will be available.  The obvious troop contributors have all been protagonists in the proxy war of the past two years:  Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.  The Turks and Russians may be willing, but won’t trust each other.  The Americans will not want to put troops into Syria.  Nor will the Europeans.  China now has experience in 20 UN peacekeeping operations and might like to extend its reach into the Middle East, if the Americans and Russians will allow it.  Iran is out of the question, though it will likely stir up trouble using some of the regime militia forces left over.  There are lots of other possibilities, but few I can think of that meet the full panoply of desirable criteria:  impartial, Arabic-speaking, experienced and self-sufficient in peacekeeping operations, available for deployment abroad.  Algeria and Morocco?

A related question is who would authorize and supervise a peacekeeping operation.  The UN is one possibility, but the divisions in the Security Council over the past two years hardly suggest it could act decisively.  The Arab League is another.  Still another is an invitation from a new Syrian government, which would have the advantage of picking which countries to invite and directing where they deploy.  But that could defeat the whole purpose of inviting in a more impartial force.

If–against the odds–an international peacekeeping force is somehow put together and somehow properly authorized for Syria, it is important to remember Brahimi’s caution, written before he took up his present position:

Even if such peacekeepers are well-armed and well-trained, however, they will be no match for much larger and well organized forces intent on destroying the
peace or committing mass atrocities. It has to be said upfront that the military forces, civilian police, human rights experts and international aid workers will not provide security, protection, justice, social services and jobs for all of the millions or tens of millions of inhabitants of the country.

A solid political solution is a prerequisite to a peacekeeping deployment.

Syria is going to be a very difficult post-war operation.  It is not too early to be thinking about who will conduct it and under what mandate.


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