The street called straight
It would be a mistake for anyone to extrapolate from the current situation in Syria to an outcome. It is, after all, in Damascus that the once main street (الشارع المستقيم) is only called straight. But we are now approaching a denouement, however many more deviations may still occur.
The indicators are both internal and external. You know your regime is in trouble when you can’t get to the capital’s main airport without going through rebel checkpoints, most of the border crossing points with Turkey and several important northern army bases are also in insurgent hands and the revolutionaries have grounded or destroyed something like 100 of your air force’s planes and helicopters. It’s also trouble when the Americans start talking about the consequences if you use weapons of mass destruction and Jim Dobbins publishes a piece in the Financial Times suggesting ways in which intervention could be justified. UN Envoy Brahimi’s recent tête-à-têtewith the Russian Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State should also give you pause.
Washington and Moscow are now concluding that they really do share a common interest in preventing a radical Islamist takeover in Syria. It’s about time. Moscow has been unwise to continue to bank on Bashar al Asad as a bulwark against Sunni extremism. Washington has been unwise to think it could steer the revolution in Syria in a democratic direction without making any major commitment in arms or military action. If they can find common cause now, they may still have time and influence enough to prevent the worst from happening.
Pretty much the only important political document Moscow and Washington have agreed on since the Syria rebellion began is last June’s “action group” communiqué. That will be at least part of the basis for the current talks. It foresees a Syrian state that
• Is genuinely democratic and pluralistic, giving space to established and newly emerging political actors to compete fairly and equally in elections. This also means that the commitment to multi-party democracy must be a lasting one, going beyond an initial round of elections.
• Complies with international standards on human rights, the independence of the judiciary, accountability of those in government and the rule of law. It is not enough just to enunciate such a commitment. There must be mechanisms available to the people to ensure that these commitments are kept by those in authority.
• Offers equal opportunities and chances for all. There is no room for sectarianism or discrimination on ethnic, religious, linguistic or any other grounds. Numerically smaller communities must be assured that their rights will be respected.
How to get there from here is hard to picture, but the goal is admirably clear. The action group statement is also admirably clear on the steps to be taken to achieve a transition to such a state:
• The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.
• It is for the Syrian people to determine the future of the country. All groups and segments of society in Syria must be enabled to participate in a National Dialogue process. That process must not only be inclusive, it must also be meaningful—that is to say, its key outcomes must be implemented.
• On this basis, there can be a review of the constitutional order and the legal system. The result of constitutional drafting would be subject to popular approval.
• Once the new constitutional order is established, it is necessary to prepare for and conduct free and fair multi-party elections for the new institutions and offices that have been established.
• Women must be fully represented in all aspects of the transition.
It is that first step in the process that is both crucial and problematic: the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers. What this suggests is an interim government fully empowered even with Bashar al Asad still in Damascus, as this “action group” transition plan makes no reference to his stepping aside (a key demand of the Syrian opposition and source of friction between Washington and Moscow). This is not only hard to picture, but so far as I am aware has never been successfully attempted in the past. I asked a knowledgeable person recently: he could not think of an example. The best I can come up with is the current coalition arrangements in Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe is still in place but a good deal of governing authority is in opposition hands. That is not an encouraging precedent.
There are other problems with the idea of a negotiated transition. Jebhat al Nusra, the Al Qaeda in Iraq franchise that operates in Syria, will not be interested in one. They have two strong points: lots of weapons and a reputation for fighting the regime (and avoiding exploitation of the population) that appears unequaled. It will be hard for the Washington-favored Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to compete with the more radical Sunni extremists who have been in the vanguard of the fight against Asad, using weapons paid for by wealthy Saudis and Qataris.
One thing might level the playing field: an international intervention force, which the UN is just beginning to think about. That is what was lacking in Libya, allowing extremists a much freer hand there than has been healthy either for American diplomats or the political transition. But who would be willing to send troops into Syria at the end of this horrendous civil war, when revenge killing, the struggle for power and disorder will be at their peak? Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been willing to pump money and arms to their favorites, but they are hardly suitable as impartial peacekeepers. Turkey and Iran are viewed as protagonists within Syria, the former in favor of the rebellion and the latter against it. Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia are hardly in a position to embark on a difficult foreign venture. Europe and the United States do not want their own boots on the ground and will oppose Russian and Chinese troops in Syria.
As it has from the beginning, Syria poses far more problems than the international system can answer. The guys with guns will control the transition in Syria, with consequences that could take the country far from the democratic transition that the action group would prefer. Moscow and Washington will need to cooperate and exert a lot of influence to prevent that from happening.
PS: Having violated my general rule of always reading Mike Eisenstadt before publishing, the best I can do now is cite his piece on what a hard fall might look like.