The complex maze that is Syria

Christopher R. Hill

“Men and nations,” Israeli diplomat Abba Eban had once observed, “do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” Will this be the case for the US with respect to Syria — the most intractable and dangerous issue in today’s Middle East? Until now, US policy has boiled down to pinprick bombings against Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) extremists and an effort to train some 5,000 Syrian “moderate oppositionists”, who presumably would defeat the other Sunnis, vanquish President Bashar Al Assad’s forces and finally march victoriously into Damascus — perhaps with a flyover by US aircrafts. Thus, the US has continued to do the wrong — or at best inadequate — thing: Listening to and, worse, believing those who have been part of the problem.

US President Barack Obama is right that the destruction of Daesh is a long-term proposition. But, though Obama correctly identified Daesh as what the US does not want in the region, he failed to identity what the US does want for Syria — for which America should be galvanising support in the region and in the broader international community. Just as Iraq cannot be governed by Shiites alone, Syria cannot be effectively governed solely by and on behalf of the Sunni majority.

Syria is the proverbial problem from hell, a country whose borders have little to do with the tribal or sectarian identities found in the Levant. Syria’s borders, as many have noted, were hurriedly and secretly drawn a century ago by the foreign ministers of France and Britain. Syria will never have a day when someone does not mention this fact or propose a new set of facts. Even Daesh, for which history seems to have ended in the seventh century, has pointed out the colonial legacy of the region’s borders. But the Sykes-Picot line is not Syria’s uniquely underlying problem. After all, borders in Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia and North America are rooted in complex histories that few of us would ever want to relive. In the Middle East, any effort to alter borders is likely to create many more problems than it resolves.

The problems that the US is encountering in Syria have a far more recent pedigree. In the wake of the Arab Spring, and amid growing unrest among Syrians seeking an end to the brutal Al Assad regime, the US and France sent their ambassadors to visit Hama in July 2011 to urge unity among the fledgling opposition movement. Hama was known for its Sunni population and anti-Al Assad sentiment, which frequently boiled over into violent protests and even more violent government crackdowns. It was also well known as a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood activity. The visit certainly did not unite the opposition. The most important result was the elimination of any possibility of dealing with the Al Assad government. Indeed, the US decision to side overtly with protesters in Hama spelled the end of any influence over the Alawites, the tribe on which Al Assad’s regime is based, effectively marginalising the US.

Syria’s problem is not simply Al Assad’s presence in power; removing his regime would not by itself harmonise the interests embedded in the country’s patchwork quilt of ethnic and sectarian identities. A far more sustained and thoughtful consideration of Syria’s future, and how the country will be governed democratically, is needed. Obama has likened his Syria policy to the sustained operations against terrorist cells in the Horn of Africa. No doubt, this approach must be included. But, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, Martin Dempsey, implied when he opened the door to a discussion of a US ground component in the campaign against Daesh, US military power cannot be used incrementally and indecisively. It needs to be an element in the solution to a conflict that shows little sign of abating on its own.

There are three concentric circles of US diplomatic engagement: The successful effort in Baghdad to push former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki out and thereby try to win back Sunni hearts and minds; the effort to deepen dialogue with regional states such as Saudi Arabia; and the broader effort to engage international leaders. The Obama administration has used its effort to remove Al Maliki as a springboard to improve its relationships in the region. But it is far from clear whether regional partners are prepared to cooperate with a Shiite-led Iraq at all.

Important as this regional diplomacy is, a US approach that includes unitary governance in Iraq will be problematic, given the reality of Shiite leadership. The current thinking about eventual political solutions envisage provisional elections, followed by a constitutional process that the warring parties accept. But the realities on the ground make it highly doubtful that any election process could result in a provisional authority able to create a sustainable political system.

This state of affairs argues for diplomacy at the international level to identify a workable plan for Syria’s future that reasonable people can support. Syria may be unique, but the problems of governing a multi-ethnic country are not. Many of the solutions (a bicameral parliament and highly decentralised provincial structures, for example) are well known.

There will be those who argue that identifying the outlines of an eventual political solution is patronising to Syrians. But when a country’s dysfunctional governance has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and threatens neighbouring countries, such complaints have no place in the debate.

Courtesy Project Syndicate

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