Better than surrender
Colleagues at RAND have updated their peace proposal for Syria. This should be taken seriously, both because Jim Dobbins, Phil Gordon and Jeffrey Martini are sharp guys and because their previous version turned out to be prescient, or maybe just reflective of Administration thinking before the recent, now mostly lamented, cessation of hostilities. They want to put aside the difficult political question of transition, including the fate of Bashar al Assad, to focus on reducing the violence and extending the cessation of hostilities.
What they’ve done this time is to suggest four different ways in which decentralization could be implemented with Bashar al Assad still in place: one based on existing legislation, a second based on that plus additional taxing and security authority, a third acknowledges existing Kurdish autonomy, and a fourth that extends that autonomy to opposition and government controlled areas, more or less along the lines of their previous proposal. Wisely dropped from their original proposal is the ethnic/sectarian definition of “safe” zones, with the exception of the de facto majority Kurdish area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
All of this is perfectly reasonable as an outline of what might happen if the war continues. It just isn’t going to be possible for Assad to re-establish control over all of Syria. Decentralization is unquestionably part of the solution, as it is in Yemen, Libya and Iraq. The opposition already has local governing structures in northern and southern Syria, the Kurds are governing their “cantons” and ISIS unfortunately administers the territory it controls.
But as a proposal that keeps Bashar al Assad in place it looks distinctly like surrender. Assad himself yesterday made clear that he intends to reconquer all of Syria:
There is no sign that he would accept a peace that includes decentralization along any of the lines RAND recommends, even the one based on existing legislation. Nor is there any sign that the Russians and Iranians would compel him to do so. To the contrary: they are doubling and tripling down on their support for Assad’s offensives, most notably right now against Aleppo and Raqqa.
Nor is there any sign that the peacekeeping forces RAND mumbles quietly are necessary in both the original and updated version of its peace plan are going to be available. Even the Iranians and Russians are unlikely to deploy the tens of thousands required on the ground in Syria. Much less so the Qataris, Saudis, Jordanians or even the Turks. Years ago, the UN had polled more traditional troop providing countries and had identified 18,000 that might be made available. Today that number has certainly shrunk. A country the size of Syria would require well over 100,000 by the usual peacekeeping formulas.
The value of this second version of the RAND proposal lies in its careful attention to the pros and cons of different forms of decentralization. Assad is staying, but he won’t be able to achieve his territorial goal. The Americans, whose one real asset in Syria is the local governing structures they have supported, should be thinking about decentralization not with Assad, because he just won’t buy it, but despite Assad. Providing the security resources required to protect local governing structures, and weaving them together into a viable alternative to the regime, is a better plan than the surrender RAND is advocating.