Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts
27 Jun 2013
While a diplomatic settlement of the Syrian war is unrealistic at present, it remains the only viable option. It will require difficult steps by local, regional and international actors to accommodate competing interests.
|“If Russia and the U.S. wish to signal seriousness, they should start with efforts to de-escalate the war. This would not fundamentally alter its trajectory or truly point to its resolution. But it would be a start, which is far more than has been achieved at this sorry stage.”
Louise Arbour, Crisis Group’s President & CEO
Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts, the latest International Crisis Group report, examines a war that has produced scores of thousands of dead, a mushrooming regional sectarian conflict and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. The evolving positions of regime and opposition alike have made both military and negotiated solutions ever more elusive, while transformation of the broader strategic context has made escalation even more likely.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
- The conflict continues to escalate incrementally, with no decisive breakthrough in sight for either side, although each continues to pin its hopes on one. Thus, the conflict keeps growing, sucking in more players, taking on new layers and becoming ever more destructive and intractable.
- Both sides pay lip-service to a “political solution” which each conceives as capitulation by the other. With no Russian-U.S. exit vision, a polarised region, amorphous opposition and a rigid regime, there is little to work with. But that is no reason to invest further in alternative pipedreams.
- Three options exist to radically change the dynamics, all unpalatable or currently unrealistic. Toppling the regime requires massive intervention with no guarantee of longer-term “victory”. Putting up with the regime – arguably the quick way to end the bloodshed – would exact a significant moral and geopolitical price with no assurances that it would refrain from revenge. A third option, to seek a negotiated solution involving genuine local power sharing among Syrian actors and regional understanding among their patrons, is optimal but unfortunately hard to imagine for now.
- Mid-way measures – such as arming the opposition, air strikes or establishing safe havens – might produce ancillary benefits for the West but not what its proponents typically advertise, whether “changing the regime’s calculus”, containing violence or limiting jihadi influence.
- Given the current impasse, focus should be on a negotiated endgame: What kind of power-sharing solution can protect regime and opposition interests alike? What kind of state could emerge from a political process and be the foundation of a lasting solution? How must existing institutions change for this vision to gain substance? Is there a way to accommodate the concerns of rival regional actors? This is where most agreement is to be found among Syrians and where the concerns of their allies can be addressed in practice. This report suggests ideas as a basis for further discussion.
“This war is not a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains definitely mean the other side’s losses”, says Senior Middle East Adviser Peter Harling. “It is past time to put daydreams away and come to terms with a realistic assessment of the situation on the ground and available options”.
“If Russia and the U.S. wish to signal seriousness, they should start with efforts to de-escalate the war,” says President Louise Arbour. “This would not fundamentally alter its trajectory or truly point to its resolution. But it would be a start, which is far more than has been achieved at this sorry stage”.