In the 21st century’s deadliest war, there seems to be hope of resolution. The solution may not satisfy the desires of the international community, but it just might stop the slaughter of Syrians.
As unfortunate as it may be, there seems to be an apparent victor in Syria, Bashar Al Assad. He is the cause of the conflict for some and the savior to others. Equally divided is the international community, which continues to be as deadlocked as it once was during the Cold War.
Careers have been made just by writing about the Syrian conflict. However, most researchers agree that some form of power-sharing is needed to resolve the conflict.
Commentators have suggested formulas such as power-sharing governments, federalism, autonomy, decentralization and even secession. These theories were based on the idea that the Geneva Communique of 2012, which called for transitional government, is still the guiding star for all Syria-related discussions.
Conflict theorists Raymond Hinnebusch and William Zartman in 2016 published a critique of the UN mediation efforts. They argued that the UN mandate was restrictive since it was focused on transition, while expecting the Assad regime to dismantle itself in the negotiations.
However, for negotiations to be fruitful today, Assad’s participation is not enough; his upper hand in the conflict needs to be recognized. Moreover, any positive move from his regime must necessarily be seen as a concession.
Three years since Russian warplanes began flying over Syrian airspace, Putin’s mission has been more successful than any other intervention in the country. Hopes for successful negotiations, however, rest upon Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States and the European Union. The problem lies in the fact that it seems that these major players in the conflict have not yet accepted the fact that Assad has won.
It cannot be overlooked that when Russia announced its plan to intervene in the conflict, Western commentators led by former President Obama immediately claimed that the intervention will only prolong the war and will not be successful.
Putin claims that Russia’s main interest in Syria has always been the maintenance of state institutions. Acting as a guardian, Russia vetoed twelve resolutions relating to Syria.
Furthermore, as the dominant foreign power in Syria, Russia claims that it has brokered over 1479 truces. In late 2016, when the UN-led Geneva process seemed stalled, Russia, along with Iran and Turkey, initiated the Astana Process. The Process claims to be different from that of Geneva since it is aimed at technical issues such as ceasefires and evacuations.
2018 has been a year of optimism for the Syrian government. In just five months, most major Syrian cities are now back under state control. The recapturing effort was not attained just through barrel bombs and massive civilian casualties, but was also done through the local reconciliation efforts brokered under the Astana mandates and tested in Aleppo.
The procedures of these truces often varied, but the general concept was that fighters either lay down their weapons or evacuate to other areas. In return, the government would lift the siege and restore services.
The fighters who submitted are then absorbed into the Syrian army. As part of these agreements, the opposition local councils are disbanded, and power is temporarily given to local leaders until the full return of state institutions.
More important is the fact that rebellious religious leaders often integrate back into government politics following a change in their rhetoric. Some even become mediators between the people and the state.
The current geopolitics of the conflict show that the Syrian opposition is completely worn down, the Kurds maintain a stronghold in the North, and ISIS is almost entirely obliterated. This means that finding a solution in Syria now possible.
As the victor, however, Assad can dictate the terms of peace and it is up to him and Russia to choose their post-conflict partners. To that extent, Russia took care to choose which groups participated in Astana; indeed, only armed opposition was invited while the High Negotiations Committee, representing the Syrian opposition at planned Geneva peace talks, was only consulted.
The Russian plan is not necessarily bound to maintaining the status quo, it calls for reform in Syria. At first, Assad wasn’t responsive to this call. According to Professor Gerhard Mangott, a Russian specialist at the University of Innsbruck, the Russians even suggested that Assad should step down, but he refused.
Consequently, Russia’s role can’t be seen as entirely negative; they even called for the drafting of a pluralist constitution.
Yet we must keep in mind that, if left to their own will, it is highly unlikely that Russia and Assad will come up with a democratic solution.
All in all, this is the perfect opportunity for Europe and the rest of the West to partner with the Russians in rebuilding the country.
Democracy will not come overnight, but if a condition of EU aid is linked to political reform, then maybe, just maybe, democracy could be achieved in Syria within the next decade.