Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts
Middle East Report N°143
27 Jun 2013
Two years, scores of thousands of dead, a mushrooming regional sectarian war and millions of refugees and internally displaced later, the Syrian war is tying the international community in knots largely of its own making. Once confident of swift victory, the opposition’s foreign allies shifted to a paradigm dangerously divorced from reality: that military pressure would force the regime to alter its calculus so that it would either negotiate its demise or experience internal cracks leading to its collapse. That discounted the apparent determination of Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to do what it takes to keep the regime afloat and bring the armed opposition to its knees. It counted without the fecklessness of an opposition in exile fighting for a share of power it has yet to achieve. And it assumed that the Assad regime has a “calculus” susceptible to be changed, not merely a fighting mode designed to last. It is past time to get over false hopes and confront a harsh truth. The options that dominate the policy debate would deepen the crisis, not produce a credible exit from it.
If the goal is to end this horrendous war, the choice is between massive Western military intervention – with attending risks and uncertainties – to decisively shift the ground balance; acceptance of regime victory with the moral and political price that would entail; and a diplomatic solution driven jointly by the U.S. and Russia. The latter is the preferred but today illusory option, in which regime and opposition would settle for a less-than-satisfactory power-sharing agreement, and the region’s main rival camps (led, respectively, by Iran and Saudi Arabia) would acquiesce in a Syria aligned with neither. A fourth option – in which allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail – would perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims. It is the present stage and the likeliest forecast for the foreseeable future.
For now, the focus should be on immediate steps to de-escalate the conflict and on mapping out in more detail an endgame that could serve as the basis for a diplomatic settlement. This entails answering core questions: 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 can be found among Syrians and their allies’ concerns can be addressed. This report suggests ideas for further discussion.
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That choices are so unpalatable, unrealistic or both owes much to the dynamics of a war that is often misdiagnosed. It is not a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains definitely mean the other side’s loss. Both regime and opposition can be strong on some fronts, frail on others. Both have undergone consolidation processes and enjoy sufficient domestic and foreign support to endure. Its fighters more battle-hardened and its allies more hands-on, the regime has scored important tactical military victories. It retains loyal constituencies; some once on the fence, well aware of Assad’s atrocities yet alarmed by the opposition’s desultory record of governance as well as increasingly Islamist and sectarian disposition, hold their nose and lean toward a regime that claims to be fighting on behalf of a significant national cross-section. Most importantly, the regime has evolved in ways that largely make it impervious to its innumerable failings.
This is one good reason to rapidly discard the tipping-point theory, the fiction that once the opposition reached a critical mass (taking over Aleppo; moving into Damascus; bringing the business class to its side, among other hypotheticals) it would overwhelm the regime. One should do the same with the notion that, under growing pressure, the power structure would turn against itself, in a military coup or by desertion of significant personalities. The regime comes as a package deal – an inseparable whole, whose more acceptable elements cannot be dissociated from its least tolerable ones without bringing the entire edifice down. Assad supporters, often among his harshest private critics, remain persuaded that the remnants of the state would crumble were he to step down.
In its own way but with much the same result, the opposition is nearly impossible to eliminate. There are differences, of course. It is pluralistic and deeply divided, its structures improvised and shifting and its foreign backers less consistent and more uncoordinated. Still, and not unlike the regime, it has acquired a critical and resilient mass of support at least partially immune to the ups and downs of its performance. The large underclass that is its core constituency has suffered such extreme regime violence that it can be expected to fight till the end.
International support has been inconstant in the best of times, ineffectual at others. Yet even the opposition’s most reluctant foreign supporters are unlikely to fundamentally reverse course; as the recent decisions by Washington to deliver some weapons and then by others to significantly ramp up their own assistance suggest, they are more likely to do the opposite. Too much has been invested in demonising the regime, and too much is riding on the contest with Iran and Hizbollah for it to be otherwise. For those who view the conflict as a proxy war with Tehran, Assad’s survival would be a strategic body blow.
In short, the evolution of regime and opposition alike has made both military and negotiated solutions even more elusive, while transformation of the broader strategic context has made prospects for escalation even more probable. In the words of a former U.S. official, what once was a Syrian conflict with regional spillover has become a regional war with a Syrian focus. That is frightening.
The war is metastasising in ways that draw in regional and other international actors, erase boundaries and give rise to a single, transnational arc of crisis. The opposition increasingly resembles a Sunni coalition in which a radicalised Sunni street, Islamist networks, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf states and Turkey take leading roles. The pro-regime camp, encompassing Iran, Hizbollah, Iraq and Iraqi Shiite militants, likewise appears to be a quasi-confessional alliance.
By its own admission, Hizbollah is directly engaged in a far-reaching battle against those it denounces as Sunni fundamentalists (takfiris) allied with Israel, thereby laying the predicate for long-term involvement. Iraqi Shiite fighters are growing in numbers, and Iran’s participation is expanding. Sunni sheikhs around the region are themselves using uninhibited sectarian language to urge followers to join the fight. The conflict has reignited tensions in Syria’s most fragile neighbours – Iraq and Lebanon – which recently had their own civil wars.
Stakes have risen for the U.S. and Israel as well. For Washington, acquiescing in the regime’s success arguably has acquired graver significance than living with a weakened regime ruling a rogue state and broken society. It is likened by some to empowering an increasingly integrated, Iranian-led axis of resistance, while handing Moscow a victory in a Cold War replay. The fusion of Iranian, Hizbollah and Syrian military assets could alter Israel’s cautious posture, making determination of what weapons system has been transferred to whom highly uncertain and thus a decision to use force more probable.
What is to be done? Already overdue is to vastly increase humanitarian aid within Syria, whether in regime- or opposition-held territory. There is need, too, for a “periphery” strategy for avoiding instability in vulnerable neighbours: giving economic help to Jordan and Lebanon and the refugees they host; prevailing upon regional countries not to further incite sectarian tensions in Lebanon; pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to adopt a far more inclusive policy toward his Sunni opposition.
Hardest of all is what to do about Syria. The priority should be to end the war; there are no easy choices, but there is at least need to face them squarely:
One option would be for the West to decisively tip the military balance. This, it almost certainly can do – albeit only by a far more massive intervention than is presently contemplated or, arguably, politically palatable. Even then, it is not clear whether the regime would be “defeated”, or merely reincarnated in a series of militias, and even less clear whether the war would be ended or only redefined. Iran, Hizbollah, perhaps even Russia would keep influence, fuel instability and ensure a chaotic transition (Tehran and the Shiite movement have elsewhere proved to be masters at this game), and the regional/sectarian Cold War would endure.
An arguably most expedient way to tamp down violence would be to starve the rebels of resources, acquiesce in de facto regime victory and seek an accommodation with Bashar. The moral, political and strategic costs would be huge, perhaps prohibitive, and it might well not end the tragedy: enraged Syrians likely would not surrender; an emboldened regime might seek revenge; and Damascus almost certainly would refrain from the domestic or foreign policy concessions necessary for its external enemies to save face.
The optimal solution – a negotiated, diplomatic one – at this stage belongs pretty much to the world of make-believe. Outside powers – beginning with Russia and the U.S. – would have to fundamentally shift their endgame approach. For Moscow, this means accepting, then pushing for a major transformation of the Syrian power structure; for Washington, it entails moving from implicit regime change to explicit power sharing. Any viable negotiated political outcome would have to empower and reassure Syria’s various constituencies. Regional actors, who will support a compromise only if they believe the new political framework gives them sufficient leverage to preserve their core interests, would need guarantees. The West’s apparent determination to exclude Iran from a peace conference (perhaps under review in the wake of that country’s presidential elections) is short-sighted: keeping Tehran from Geneva will not lessen its role in Damascus.
The West’s current trajectory – urging diplomacy while resorting to half-way measures such as arming the opposition or, conceivably in the future, targeted airstrikes and a limited no-fly zone – is an option as well, and one that might produce sizeable ancillary benefits: eroding the regime’s military; boosting Western influence over the rebels; and recalibrating the balance of power among rebel groups. But it would not produce what its promoters typically claim as justification: moving the regime to seriously negotiate a genuine transition. Nor is there any reason to believe it could arrest sectarian polarisation, contain violence, limit jihadi groups or persuade Syria’s allies to back down. Ultimately, it would mean getting further sucked into a dangerously intensifying and malignant Sunni/Shiite sectarian regional conflict in which the West would be running a risk by picking favourites.
If Russia and the U.S. wish to signal seriousness, they should start with efforts to de-escalate the conflict. Moscow should press the regime to end the most gratuitous forms of violence (notably massacres of civilians in the presence of army troops and use of ballistic missiles against civilians) and curtail the use of its foreign fighters (especially those of an overtly sectarian nature). Washington should push the opposition to act against its own most extreme armed groups and implement ceasefires along specified front lines. None of this would fundamentally alter the trajectory of the conflict or truly point to its resolution. But at least it would be a start, which is far more than one can say has been achieved at this sorry stage.
Damascus/Cairo/Brussels, 27 June 2013