Globally, there are two opposed dynamics related to Syria after the Obama-Putin meeting. One is perused by the two powers to find a way forward for a transitional phase. The other is shaping up in the current debate between the opposition groups and between their regional backers.
In order to achieve the transitional phase hoped for, no one should underestimate the ups and downs of the road that will get us there. In other words, if the attempt to move forward erred, we may find ourselves at the end with a transitional period that is only transitional to more war and a deeper crisis. The nature of this transitional period, and whether it is really transitional towards a meaningful solution, will be defined by seeing the map of the opposition in its shades and different colors, not in the raw black and white picture offered by Mr. Putin in the UN. This opposition is the other hand without which we will hear no applause.
But this is not the only requirement. There are other requirements that need to be considered. First there is the need to start from where we actually are, and not from any subjective categorization of the opposition groups. Second we need a truce, not only for humanitarian reasons but because this is a precondition for any political solution to unfold.
Mr. Putin might have been hardening his announced views deliberately in order to get a deal in sanctions or Ukraine or any other issues in his mind. But he must know as clear as everyone does that if a political solution is not based on popular acceptance from the majority of Syrians it will end up being neither political nor solution. If you want to paint something and call it a different name do not try to convince others that you have changed anything.
Therefore, the issue now is where to start in order to reach a real transitional period that guarantees free elections, the return of the refugees and the beginning of meaningful talks between the direct parties of the crisis. We believe that to designate the final status (the transitional government) as the starting point will make the job more difficult and may lead to a false transition.
Syria’s opposition backers are determined to increase their support to their clients on the ground as a response to the substantial Russian military aid to Assad. Publicly, they may say something different, but it is inconceivable for them to see Assad bomb his way back to the pre-2011 situation. By the same token, the opposition groups seem to be determined as well to fight the Russians. They do not seem to be afraid of the Russian gunships or tanks. Preparations for attacks on Russian sites in Latakia have already started. The intention of the armed opposition is to get Putin to bleed enough in Syria until he orders pulling back his forces.
In general, we estimate that there is still quite some energy trapped in the regional and local crisis to guarantee yet another long round of war in Syria. But there might be a path that can take the Syrian crisis to a quieter spot where some time could be available for a better shot at a solution.
Putin says that Assad is important for preserving the state structure. Iran says the same. We have to admit that they have a point in this argument. Police states are built like reversed pyramids, the top down. The system of loyalties is personal not institutional. But two questions should be addressed to both the Russians and the Iranians: 1) if the objective would be to preserve Assad and the State, both were there before 2011, how can we solve the crisis? 2) Have you examined ways to soft land the regime into a platform where the State is preserved but without Assad?
In any case, neither Assad nor the State exist in any real meaning over the majority of the country at this actual moment. Starting from this fact which is accepted by all, even the Russians and the Iranians, let us see how we can move forward towards a solution that does not necessarily start with the departure of Assad but rather starts from the reality of the situation on the ground.
Roughly, we have ISIL and Nusra (hereafter “the Radicals”) in one side and the rest of the opposition in the other. We can explain the validity of this categorization in another occasion. But for now, let us accept it at face value for a moment. In this rest of the opposition (the non-ISIL, non-Nusra), we identify two major groups: Ahrar Al Sham in the North and Jaish Al Islam in the south. Each of these two groups control considerable territories already.
Whatever happens on the diplomatic front will have to be brought down to the ground and be implemented somehow. Otherwise, it will remain wishful thinking. And in order for any political solution that aims at unifying all firepower to fight the Radicals, in order for it to deserve its name, the rest of the opposition has to jump on the bandwagon of such a solution.
Therefore, the issue boils down to reaching a deal that can make the non-Radicals change their objective. Obviously, they want Assad to go. And obviously as well, the man should go as it is virtually impossible for him to preside over a national anything, not only a national State or a national fight against the Radicals. But even if the removal of Assad is pushed a little down the road, there are other things that should not.
In view of the current reality of the de facto partition, a reversed process should start from bottom up. That is to say that both Ahrar and Jaish Al Islam should be told that they are responsible for their areas of control and they will be recognized as such within a unified Syria ruled by a soft, weak and symbolic federal government. Minorities will remain wherever they are without any sectarian intervention in their affairs.
That means Alawi community will remain wherever it is and will be secure from any Sunni attacks. What goes for the Alawis will go for the Sunnis, no barrel bombs, no attacks from the militia called “the national army” and no pressures on trade routes. In return, these different “regions” will participate in a joint effort in which all other Syrians take part to fight the Radicals with assistance from the UN.
The “central” government will be composed of representatives from these different regions. Each region will have its distinct border lines. The central government will exist in each region as much as required by this region itself.
For those who understandably refuse Assad to be their president, they will enjoy a semi-autonomous status in their regions until Assad goes. If their rejection of Assad prevents the formation of that weak “central” government, be it. The government should be formed anyway without them. The main condition would be that no one attacks their regions in return for a clear commitment to fight the Radicals and not to expand their control beyond their designed regions. They should be invited later on to participate in the government when conditions allow.
If they oppose the fact that Assad is still in Damascus, the should be told that effectively he is the president of a “region” not of all of Syria as there is nothing called all of Syria standing right now before us. While he will remain in name the president of all of Syria, it is these groups that run their regions without any intervention from the imaginary center.
This concept allows to go around entrenched interests (and actually use them favorably). Foreign aid to each region could be used later to inject some muscle into the central government and to the anti-radicals campaign. This “central” government will preserve the powers of the Central Bank, the civil records, foreign policy, taxation, education and health services, a small “national” army and some other functions. These functions are already either non-existent or part of the central government actual responsibilities at present. Judiciary, security and civil administration will be left for these regions to perform.
Final status talks could start later, in a little more favorable circumstances, to rebuild the national army and centralize the judiciary and police structures. During that time civil administrations should be built in the different regions. These region must be informed that in all actuality, Assad is not their President and that they are the ones responsible for their regions.
All this should be introduced as a transitional phase. This fact should be emphatically repeated in order to pick the thread from where it is now and try to calm down the whole situation. If the Arabs accept this concept, it better be introduced by them. The commitments of the non-Radical fighting groups not to cross their areas should be guaranteed by their regional backers.
We understand that the current phase of international-regional talks about Syria is going through a critical phase. However, we wish that the able diplomats that are conducting these talks start from the point of fragmentized framework to reach, in a later phase, a cemented whole. By this we mean that if we push hard the issue of a global solution or a final status at this sensitive moment we will reach a dead end. Assad or anybody else could be the president of the Alawis if they want him. In fact he currently is. The illusion that he is the president of all Syria is bought only by the terminally naïve or the blind.
Will that bring us a unified Syria during the transitional period? No. It would not. But we do not have now anything close to a unified Syria anyway. The name of such a plan is a temporary and organized “Hudna” or truce. The organizing principles would be: Each party will fight ISIL and Nusra under supervision from international powers and each will commit to keeping their regions Radicals-free, each player will abstain from fighting any other player and all will respect civilians in general and minorities in particular, and each region will allow the refugees to return to their homes. The war will be waged against areas under the control of ISIL and Nusra and gradually be an integrated operation. If Russia and Iran are really sincere in saying they want to fight terrorists, they should not oppose this approach based on the simple fact that only Sunnis can really defeat the Radicals.
Non-ISIL and non-Nusra opposition may accept this temporary truce if they know its time limit and the endgame and if they are promised to receive help to be able to build regional administrative bodies to enable them to run their regions.
From that fragmentized Syria, we can later on provide facilitators to induce the process of gathering these pieces into a one Syria without Bashar Al Assad. The fact that there will be needs to fight the radicals and to normalize life in the non-Radicals controlled areas may help get Syrians back on the road to each other.