Assad may stay, but his abuses shouldn’t

RAND colleagues have again updated their proposal for de-escalation and decentralization in Syria. This time there is no pretense that Assad would cooperate, only an assertion that he is unlikely to do better given his weakening military forces. The proposition now is for a Russian/American/Turkish  and maybe /Iranian agreement imposed on him and the opposition, once Raqqa is taken by the Kurdish and allied Arab forces now investing it.

Raqqa would be put under international (UN or US/Russian) administration, the opposition would remain in control of a slice of the south, Idlib would likely fall to the regime, the “Manbij pocket” would remain in Turkish or surrogate Turkoman hands, and Kurds would rule the rest of the north. Assad would control “useful Syria” in the populous western “spine” and might eventually get his hands on Deir Azzour and its oil resources in the east, where regime forces have held on through more than six years of revolution and war.

The premise behind this proposal is that we are near if not at a mutually hurting stalemate, in which the warring parties conclude that they have no prospect of gaining much from continued fighting. What Jim Dobbins, Phil Gordon, and Jeffrey Martini are proposing is what is known in the negotiating trade as a “way out.” They don’t claim that what they propose is fair or just, only that ending the fighting and refocusing the military effort against the extremists of Jabhat Fateh al Sham and the Islamic State is what serves US interests best. While they don’t say it, I suppose Donald Trump could claim that an internationally administered Raqqa province is the “safe zone” that he has repeatedly promised. This is a faute de mieux proposal based on the emerging situation, not an optimal one.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the proposal is the Kurdish-led attack on Raqqa, followed by a withdrawal in favor of an international administration. Some would like to see Turkish-backed Arab forces engaged there, perhaps in parallel if not jointly with the Kurdish-led Arabs. The rest amounts mainly to acceptance of the status quo, or the presumed status to be.

I understand why Americans focus on who takes Raqqa–it is the “capital” and last real stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria. Its conquest will affect the geopolitics of the region for a long time to come. But I also think it is what Alfred North Whitehead called a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For me, the main issue is how the two-thirds of Syrians under Assad control in the western spine of the country will live, what will happen with the 6.6 million displaced people, and whether the 4.8 million Syrian refugees will be welcomed back to the country. It is a mistake to focus on Raqqa without considering these issues.

While the Trump administration may have different ideas, it was hard to imagine until January 20 that the United States would help the Assad regime with anything but the massive humanitarian aid it has provided throughout the fighting, much of which has gone to regime-controlled areas.

Reconstruction assistance is another matter. The Russians and Iranians have already told Assad they have given during the war and cannot be relied upon once it is over. Iran has recently cut its subsidized oil shipments. If the fighting ends with a negotiated agreement along the lines RAND proposes, the Americans and Europeans will be expected to ante up, if not directly at least by allowing IMF and World Bank assistance.

What conditions should govern American and European support for reconstruction?

Here is where the West has a chance to win the peace, even if the opposition has lost the war. It will need to use prospective assistance as leverage to get Assad to drop his authoritarian brutality, illustrated recently by Amnesty International’s graphic report on the executions at Saydnaya prison. The US should lay out clearly and in advance the conditions under which it would consider more than humanitarian assistance to Syria’s civilians under regime control. Something like these might be considered:

  • Release of all political prisoners and an accounting for all those executed or still held.
  • Amnesty for non-violent demonstrators.
  • Reform of the security and judicial services, with accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • Withdrawal of all foreign forces, including Lebanese Hizbollah as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias, as well as demobilization and dissolution of all sectarian forces.
  • An inclusive process for revising the Syrian constitution and deciding when free and fair elections will be held.
  • Creation of an independent electoral commission.
  • Elimination of excessive constraints on media and political activity.
  • Freedom to return without reprisals for all refugees and displaced people.
  • An end to the crony capitalism that was a driving force of the revolution.

A vigorous and capable UN mission or something of the sort would be required to get fulfillment of such conditions and monitor implementation.

Assad is nowhere near accepting such conditions today. He continues with bold-faced denials, not only of the executions at Saydnaya but even the well-documented use of barrel bombs against civilians and attacks on hospitals and schools. If he persists in that vein, America and Europe should keep their wallets in their pockets and let come what may. Worrying about how Raqqa will be governed is far less important than making sure the abuses come to an end in the areas Assad controls.

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