American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
There is reason for pessimism about this week’s conference in Geneva on the Syrian civil war. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shown that he cannot be dislodged through force, and the rebels insist that they have no interest in any plan that does not involve his immediate departure from office. Meanwhile, the country has been ripped apart by violence, around a third of the population has fled home, and, before the United Nations stopped counting in July, at least 100,000 people had died.
There is still a chance for some kind of normalcy, though. In recent months, local efforts to end the violence and aid the starving have led to numerous small-scale cease-fires in the Damascus suburbs of Barzeh, Moadamiya, Bibilla, Bait Sahem, and Dumayr. Peace could spread if the negotiators in Geneva create a credible plan to promote and oversee similar cease-fires across the country. Perhaps thinking along those lines, Walid al-Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said last week that the regime is willing to work on “security arrangements” with the rebels in Aleppo.
So how would these cease-fires work? Although rebels with radical ideologies currently seem to dominate the scene, most Syrians have more everyday demands -- dignity and freedom. This group, which is bent on the dismissal of Assad but not on the wholesale dismantling of Syrian state institutions, has proved willing to strike deals in certain conditions. In many cases, those conditions involve starvation. One of the Assad regime’s favorite strategies during the civil war has been cutting off rebel-held areas that are close to regime strongholds from the rest of the country. Some neighborhoods, such as Moadamiya, were sealed off (even to food supplies) for more than a year, leading to an untold number of deaths. Under pressure from residents, last month rebels there accepted a cease-fire with the regime in exchange for food supplies.
Such cease-fires vary from one area to another, but they mostly involve negotiations between regime officials who have connections to the area and residents and rebels. As a condition of the deal, rebels generally get to keep their light weapons, but must hand over their heavy weapons to the regime (many rebels say that they were not using the heavy weaponry anyway, since they did not have the ammunition for it). In addition, local fighters agree to push out non-local fighters, and security duties are handed over to local rebels. In that sense, the accords represent less a victory for the regime than a recognition of local rebels’ strength and popular backing. After the deals, regime officers are usually left with one or two checkpoints (often also stocked with rebel fighters) and are prevented from taking too hands-on an approach to policing.
It is true that these cease-fires are shaky. Some have collapsed even before they launched, as was the case in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp, where the regime continued to shell despite its promises and the rebels went back on the offensive. But some of the cease-fires have been quite successful. In Barza, for example, roads have been reconstructed and new buildings have sprung up. Since the cease-fire was reached two weeks ago, food supplies from the government have also started to stream back in.
For its part, the regime has no official position on the cease-fires -- and some within the leadership protest any accord with the rebels. Tellingly, however, the Syrian army has mostly voided marching back into cities where deals have been struck. “The regime has been good so far and has kept its word for a change,” says Rahaf Shami, an activist from the town of Harasta. Presumably, it knows it has no other choice.
Limited local cease-fires, fragile though they are, can still serve as models for ending the Syrian civil war. Jihad Makdissi, a former Foreign Ministry spokesman who resigned in 2012, told me that “the blockade imposed around each area” has “made it very hard for people inside to refuse a deal.” And that, he says, goes both ways. In areas surrounded by the government and areas surrounded by the opposition, “the same tactic is used, of course on different scales. There were cases of hunger death. This is a war and unfortunately civilians are paying the highest price.” Those civilians, whether on the side of the regime or the rebels, are ready for peace.
For now, the likeliest targets for piecemeal accords are areas such as Qaboun, outside of Damascus, and several neighborhoods in Homs such as Waar, where shelling and months of siege have destroyed infrastructure and starved the population. Other places, though, will be harder. Towns such as Douma, for example, are home to more prominent rebel groups. These groups are well funded enough to provide aid to residents and fighters, so are under almost no pressure to accept aid from the Assad regime.
Local cease-fires likely offer the best chance for peace in the short term. They also open up space to negotiate a long-term solution in Syria. If the fighting dies down, the parties can more easily come together. But whether such arrangements are viable will hinge on one question: Will Assad stay in power? Assad supporters often argue that he has fought for his survival and won, and that the political opposition has to accept that fact. Further, others, such as former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, contend that Assad is indispensable in the fight against extremism. According to recent reports, European intelligence agencies even met with the Assad regime, which shared information on Western extremists in Syria.
But, practically speaking, a peace deal that leaves Assad in power is a nonstarter. Unless he goes, any internationally backed deal will likely make the conflict worse. For one, despite what his backers say, Assad is not really able to fight extremism in Syria or hold the territories he lost. It is unthinkable that the Syrian army could simply roll back into rebel-liberated areas to police them. Throughout the war, the regime has left the bulk of its army in the barracks, relying instead on special loyalist forces and militias. If Assad deployed his regular Sunni-majority forces to the front lines, he would risk mass defection or desertion. In other words, without international intervention -- for which there is no appetite -- it is hard to imagine how the weakened regime will be able to establish control over liberated areas. In other words, when Assad told the AFP this week that it is “unrealistic” for the opposition figures to become ministers in a future government, he should really consider whether it is realistic for his forces to establish control over the country again.
That is not to say that the opposition leaders with whom the international community is negotiating could easily hold territory after a peace deal, either. The rank and file would reject, for example, any blanket accord that leaves Assad in power. These fighters could then just join more extreme forces. Unlike the regime’s army and militias, rebel groups are highly autonomous. The rebel group Ahfad al-Rasoul, for example, was wiped out by the al Qaeda–affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Raqqa in August, yet their franchises around Hama sit in the same trenches against Assad. Any deal more favorable to the rebels is likelier to lead to a stable outcome than one favorable to the regime.
On balance, case-by-case local cease-fires will be favorable to the rebels, and therefore more sustainable. That is why, at Geneva, the negotiating parties should focus on two tasks. First, they need to lay the groundwork for the spread of limited cease-fires nationwide. They can do that by reaching a deal that puts local leaders and rebels in charge of security and policing their own areas. That would bring the armed opposition forces into the state institutions. Such measures of local autonomy would reassure rebels across the country that their fate, and that of the country, will not be decided by fiat.
Second, they need to think carefully about Assad’s future. It might not be practical for Assad to leave power before the two sides agree on a governing body to lead the transition, but without his eventual departure from office, peace is unimaginable. With the rise of radicals in Syria, it is natural that intelligence agencies look to him as a potential bulwark against extremism. However, he is more of a liability than an effective partner. As long as Assad is in power, al Qaeda and other extremist forces can claim legitimacy in the fight against his regime. It would be shortsighted, then, for the international community to try to build a postwar Syria in which Assad plays any role. The best strategy would be to build peace in Syria, neighborhood by neighborhood, and to prepare for Assad’s departure.