The next big thing in Syria

It’s been a few days since I’ve written about the importance of state-building in Syria, so maybe I can return to the theme. I’ve just come from a Brookings event at which Ken Pollack made an eloquent and well-argued plea in favor of what he termed nation-building, while Salman Shaikh underlined the importance of promoting a national dialogue in Syria, which is increasingly seen as important preparation for writing a new constitution, which of course is one of the vital tasks in state-building.

This took me a bit by surprise, as I thought the event was to focus on Ken’s most recent report Building a Better Syrian Opposition Army: How and Why. That proposes building over the next year or so a new, apolitical but opposition (to Bashar al Assad) army outside Syria. I’m on board that far. The report doesn’t say much about the state-building process. Some of what it says I can’t agree with:

Once the forces of a new Syrian army had secured a chunk of Syrian territory, they could declare themselves to be a new, provisional Syrian government.

Regular readers will understand that hell will freeze over before I advocate that an army declare itself a government.  That is not a formula for good, or democratic, governance. Nor will it bring stability.

What Salman had to say made more sense to me. Syrians of all stripes need to talk with each other in an open and transparent national dialogue. Up to a point, that process worked well in Yemen, where the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) insisted on it and the UN made it happen. It was failure to implement its conclusions adequately that led to the current Houthi rebellion, not failure of the national dialogue itself.

Talking is not enough. What Syrians need to do is to define their goals. Salman, who is in active communication with many stripes of Syrians, gave some hints where they are coming out:  they want security, rule of law, economic prosperity and better governance. None of that is surprising. Those are in fact four of the five end states in Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction, the book of civilian doctrine for state-building whose preparation I supervised at USIP. The Syrians will discover the fifth end state–social well-being–soon enough. Or they will include it in one of the other categories.

There is nothing at all wrong with reinventing this wheel. People have to discover what they want for themselves, and it won’t always come out so neatly congruent with Guiding Principles.  But it is vital that goals be defined. Otherwise, the state-building process has no direction and no way of measuring progress.

The question is whether this state-building process needs to wait until Bashar al Assad is gone. I think not. It needs to begin from the grass roots in liberated areas as soon as possible. The United States has been providing support to local councils and surrogate police forces in some liberated areas. That is all to the good.

But there are two problems. The Assad regime often bombs these areas to disrupt the process of creating alternatives to its own oppressive governing structures. That has to be stopped. It could be done by establishing a no-fly zone over the whole country or safe areas along the Turkish border and perhaps in other opposition-controlled areas. But let there be no doubt:  such safe areas will come under attack, likely from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as well as from the regime. We will have to be prepared to defend them, at least from air attacks (but likely also from artillery bombardment).

The second problem is preventing liberated areas from leading to de facto and eventually de jure partition. That will require they operate under the umbrella of something like Etilaf, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). So far, that has not generally been the case. Somehow or other, the breach has to be corrected. Ken proposes that the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General “hold sovereignty until a properly constituted new Syrian government is ready.”  More or les that was done in Kosovo, but I can’t picture the Syrians putting up with it. Nor is it possible before Assad is deprived of Syria’s seat at the UN.

The international community I fear is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Humanitarian assistance is usually subjected to serious coordination efforts. I trust that is the case in Syria. But reconstruction assistance rarely is. Donors like doing their own thing, often without regard to governing structures and international community coordination efforts that they in principle support. That has to be somehow avoided in Syria, which will be subjected to strong centrifugal forces of other sorts.  The last thing we need in Syria is partition.

Despite President Obama’s reluctance, state-building in Syria is the next big thing. Stay tuned.

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