How Do You Solve A Problem Like Syria?

(This week’s post is a day late, for which I apologise.  It will unfortunately also be shorter than usual as the work builds to a screaming fury.  Normal service resumes next week.)

I’ve been taking a class in Conflict Resolution (as an academic discipline rather than from a practical perspective as a mediator), and rather foolishly chose Syria as the subject for my various papers.  I say this was foolish because our final paper assignment is essentially to solve the conflict, and if I managed to achieve that within a 10-page paper I would send it to the United Nations and other relevant government agencies rather than to my professor.

The city of Azaz after a bombing [image from Wikimedia].
When I say ‘solve’, I am exaggerating somewhat.  The paper does not have to lay out a plan for how to end the conflict, just how to de-escalate it, ideally working within a six-month timeframe.  In many ways this is ideal; once you’ve established that the War isn’t going to end, you feel a little better taking half measures.  It’s a conflict resolution perspective rather than a conventional political one.  This doesn’t mean that we can advocate for a course of action which would clearly be impossible to pursue, such as bombing Israel or inviting Syria to annex Lebanon, but it does result in having slightly different priorities when evaluating the future of the conflict, ie.: the paper is solely concerned with how to speedily de-escalate the conflict, and not with what shape Syria will be in after the war is over (except inasmuch as that might spark a resumption of the conflict).

In illustration of this point, after spending several days investigating the various strategies outlined by our course for dealing with a conflict, and applying each of them to Syria in turn, I discovered –to my surprise and intense annoyance– that the quickest way to end the conflict in Syria is to encourage a government victory.

This relies on one major assumption, of course, which is that the war will not simply continue as long as the Ba’thists remain in power, and there are two ways of approaching that.  You could argue that even if the government succeeds in crushing or coming to an enforced agreement with most of the opposition groups, there will be pockets of resistance, as well as organisations like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which would happily carry on the fight.  The government is unlikely to be able to restore control over the Kurdish areas or the Eastern desert cities currently in the hands of ISIS for quite some time.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that an opposition victory would achieve any of this either.  Unless the successor government comes to power with the blessings of the whole spectrum of opposition movements, not to mention the Ba’thists, somebody will object to it and make their views known militarily, opening up the prospect for the civil war to move into a second phase.  The spectre of Libya (which currently has between 0 and 2 Prime Ministers, depending on your point of view) hangs over Syria’s future.  The Kurds are even more likely to retain de facto independence.  Even in the best scenario, Syria is likely to face a sustained campaign of terrorist attacks for quite some years.

I remain convinced that one of the reasons the West has made such a pig’s breakfast of its reaction to the Syrian Civil War is because of the complete disjoint between its stated policy (end the war as quickly as possible) and what it actually will countenance (nothing short of the ouster of the Ba’th Party).  Furthermore, for better or for worse, I think it leads us in the direction the conflict is going.  Since the Qusayr offensive last summer, the government has had a military advantage over the rebellion, and evidently feels more secure than it has in the past.  The presidential election in June is an attempt to re-establish Bashar’s mandate, as well as an indication that the Geneva talks are essentially meaningless (no change there then).

Already a number of opposition groups have reached temporary agreements or ceasefires with the government, most recently a few days ago in Homs.  The rebels who engage in this behaviour are usually members of locally-based militias which were founded on the principle of defending their towns and villages rather than parts of country-wide groups (although many of them may claim membership of the non-existence FSA as a sort of branding exercise).  As Russia-US tension grows, international pressure on both sides to come to an agreement is already loosening.  I believe we will see more of these impromptu ceasefires in the coming months.  Likewise Western governments, despite their outward revulsion at the prospect, will come to terms with the Syrian government staying in charge, as long as they get rid of their chemical weapons on time.

In the end I decided that I could not, in good conscience, write a paper advocating the enormous transfer of arms and diplomatic support to the Syrian government just to get the conflict over quickly.  In part this was because there is no way in hell that the United States could ever pursue that as a policy: no matter how hypocritical the government’s moral arguments against it, public opinion and international alliances could never allow it to happen.

Of course, as I mentioned before, the question of how to end the conflict quickly does not take into account the nature of the state after the conflict has been de-escalated.  Syria governed by a (mostly-)victorious Ba’th Party will not be a cheerful place.  The government might well feel secure enough to let in UN peacekeepers and humanitarian aid to begin dealing with the staggering refugee crisis, but that spectacle will only emphasise the utter eventual futility of a war which will have achieved nothing.

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