The Middle East Dialogue on New Political and Security Dynamics Shaping the Arab Region met in Beirut May 30-31 to consider the situation in Syria, which has deteriorated further since the last meeting of the Dialogue in Berlin last December. Violence has risen, government-controlled territory has been lost to both opposition and extremist forces, Syrians are suffering and the Syrian government is reaching the limits of its military and civilian capabilities. Seventy per cent of Damascus governorate and more than half the country are out of government control, including most of its gross domestic product, its natural resources and its agricultural production. Two main water sources for Damascus are now controlled by Ahrar al Sham. More than seven million people have been displaced and 3.5 million are refugees.
The regime is in retreat. Extremists are advancing. No military victory, political settlement or new game changer is in sight. There are no good guys or bad guys. On all sides, there are people benefiting from the war economy who resist the compromises necessary to a political settlement. Despite the UN consultations in Geneva, useful intra-Syrian meetings in Moscow and an upcoming opposition meeting in Cairo, the conflict is still in its early stages and could continue for years or even a decade more before exhaustion generates a political outcome.
Syria risks complete collapse of its governing institutions, security, economy and society. Extremists offer a compelling narrative that attracts recruits worldwide. The regime offers no competing narrative other than fighting to maintain President Assad. Even many of his supporters fear his demise more than they genuinely support his remaining in power. A victory by radical opposition forces over the Assad regime in Damascus could end up like the chaos in Kabul in the mid 1990s. That could disrupt the regional power balance, cause a general collapse of borders, precipitate region-wide war and spread extremism to still more countries. The effects would be global.
The Dialogue group, which included individuals speaking in their personal capacities from all major countries of the Arab region as well as Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States, agreed on the need to defeat Daesh, Al Qaeda and its affiliates (including Jabhat al Nusra), who threaten to spread chaos and violence further. The group also agreed on the need to continue seeking a political settlement, even if one is unlikely in the near term.
While some would like a ceasefire followed by negotiations, others think that impractical, so it will be necessary to “talk and fight.” In either scenario, achieving a compromise political settlement will require both an effort to fight terrorism and to pursue structural political reforms. The Syrian people and their government need a new social contract. While some in the group would give near-term priority to the fight against terrorism, including at the regional level, others thought political transition inside Syria vital to generating the political will and popular support needed to weaken and delegitimize extremists like Daesh, which lacks real roots in Syria, and Jabhat al Nusra. A new narrative is needed to address the grievances and aspirations that initiated the 2011 uprising, especially the brutality of the security agencies and the desire for inclusion that generated the initial nonviolent uprising.
The regional role is two edged: the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and sectarian frictions between Sunni and Shia Muslims contribute to the conflict, but Syria’s neighbors and the broader region, as well as Russia and the United States, are essential to countering terrorism and finding a political solution. A few might even like an imposed solution in Syria, but all felt key players like Washington, Moscow, Tehran, Riyadh, Ankara and Cairo have important roles to play. International divisions are contributing to conflict. An international consensus could help to end it.
The outcome of the discussions will be summarized here in three sections: generally acceptable end-state principles, the fight against terrorism and the search for a political solution.
Opinions differed sharply on many analytical and policy issues, but the group agreed on the following end-state principles for the eventual outcome of the Syrian conflict, in addition to application of the UN Charter and the 2012 Geneva communiqué:
- Preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Syria and its people as well as the sovereignty and continuity of its state institutions, including the army and the civil service
- Ensuring security for both the Syrian state and all its citizens without armed non-state actors
- Return of refugees in accordance with an integrated and comprehensive plan
- Ending any haven in Syria or neighboring countries for terrorism, clearly defined. The definition will need to include Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra, which have no legitimacy and cannot be included in a political settlement
- Engaging all Syrian stakeholders in inclusive economic and political reform processes that allow them to benefit from success and participate in deciding the future of their country
- Basing such decisions on democratic rule with strong protection and guarantees for all citizens and communities, even if in the initial stages inclusive consensus will be required
- Ending sectarianism, hate speech, takfiri ideology and other polarizing narratives, in particular in the media
- Reforming Syria’s government institutions in a way that enables them to deliver services to all its citizens in an effective way and encourages citizens to join the fight against terrorism, including a new social contract between the Syrian government and the Syrian people
- Stabilizing and reconstructing Syria should not return it to the status quo ante but rather ensure peace, justice and no return to violations of human rights
- Establishing a regional and global environment conducive to achieving these end-states.
The group reviewed the major and important advances that individual countries have made in fighting terrorism in Syria and elsewhere. These include tighter political, financial and travel restrictions, enhanced border surveillance, prohibitions on trade that benefits extremist groups, denunciation of terrorism by Muslim clerics and other public affairs messaging. Despite these laudable efforts, Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra continue to thrive.
Where those who oppose terrorism have fallen short is in providing an alternative ideological narrative that can prevent terrorist recruitment and in blocking the networks that provide arms, finance and personnel to the extremists. While individual countries are doing a much better job than in the past, the whole does not amount to more than the sum of the parts. The region is not yet fully mobilized against the terrorist threat. What is needed is a more coordinated, collective and comprehensive effort that plugs gaps and exploits synergies. ISIS can be defeated, provided states form the kind of partnership needed to confront the problem collectively. International actors can encourage regional actors to cooperate in defeating Daesh.
Inside Syria, one option is a ceasefire to allow non-extremist opposition groups to cooperate with the government in fighting extremists. The government is not prepared to engage this way. More than 90% of its military attacks are targeted against those considered by some to be moderate opposition rather than against extremists. In the region, a more comprehensive effort would require cooperation among countries that do not agree on many things, including the causes and cures for terrorism in Syria. They could nevertheless help each other with tactical intelligence and begin to cooperate in specific counter-terrorism operations.
The Syrian government has substantial intelligence capabilities that could be useful against Daesh and other extremists. They are not used for that purpose at present, but instead have become instruments of repression against dissent of all sorts. The Syrian opposition wants the security services dismantled, but doing that would create a gap and open the door to increased extremist activity. If a political solution proves possible, it may then be feasible to square this circle by removing top echelons of the security services and announcing their restructuring and reorientation back to their proper role.
One participant suggested a new UN Security Council resolution embodying the consensus on prohibiting assistance to Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra. Another suggestion, not further discussed, was that U.S. and Russian troops be sent to Syria to save Palmyra, perhaps joined by Chinese forces.
Search for a political solution
Two distinct approaches to achieving a political solution were evident. Some think the main driving forces of the violence in Syria are brutality, oppression, marginalization and human rights violations. They favor a political solution that would radically alter the regime and its security apparatus. Others think the conflict is generated by external forces, including some that support extremists. They think Bashar al Assad is a legitimate sovereign and should be respected as such by other sovereign powers. They favor prioritizing the fight against terrorism and see stability as prerequisite to a political solution.
Despite its battlefield losses, the Syrian government is showing no sign of willingness to compromise on a political solution. Even minimal confidence-building measures like an end to barrel bombing of civilian areas and the use of chlorine as a weapon as well as humanitarian access to opposition-controlled areas appear beyond its willingness to cooperate.
Any serious political solution would require much more of the regime. The Agenda for a New Syria, a project run by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) that includes participation by hundreds of technical experts who anticipate review of its options by more than 900 civil society organizations, will propose as a preferred option that the current constitution remain in force but that President Assad delegate governing authority to his Vice President, who would then serve also as Prime Minister of a technocratic government charged with providing effective services and maintaining state institutions. Few in the Syrian opposition are prepared to accept even this proposition on succession, which lies well beyond what Assad has been prepared to consider.
Any political transition in Syria will have to occur in phases, which are likely to overlap. The first phase will focus on stabilization and consensus, without elections for several years. It may require dissolution of the current parliament and a “loya jirga”-type consultative body with broad representation. The second phase will focus on building more inclusive institutions, possibly including an upper chamber in parliament, and on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups. Only the third phase will produce effective governing institutions.
The group discussed the difficult question of trying to protect and provide aid to Syrians inside the country, including both those who are living in opposition-held areas and those living in areas controlled by Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra. They should be a priority for UN assistance. Experience in Iraq suggests that people living under extremist rule do not like the experience. Some may even be prepared to resist or rebel. Those living in opposition-held areas are subjected to constant attacks that render effective governance difficult or impossible. Some participants thought areas of this sort should be protected from both government and extremist attacks, thus allowing them to begin to provide decent governance and services as well as attract refugees back to Syria. Other participants thought such protected areas would violate Syrian sovereignty.
A regional contact group could be an important contributor to a political solution. It should include at a minimum the United States and Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates may also want to participate. The regional contact group will need to consider what more can be done to prevent foreign fighters from reaching Syria and removing those already there. The UN Secretary General could kick-start the formation of a regional contact group by inviting foreign ministers to meet. Iraq would be prepared to host talks between the non-extremist opposition and the Syrian government.
In addition to the regional Syria contact group, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran need a political space in which they can work out their mutual security concerns, which extend beyond Syria to other regional conflicts.
Participants on all sides of the issues are looking for those on the opposite side to reconsider their governments’ policies and adjust them to meet a challenge in Syria that so far remains unmet. There are few signs those hopes will be fulfilled.
There were however some participants who think that a nuclear agreement with Iran would clear the way for more cooperation with the United States and its allies on other issues, in accordance with recent statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Two additional sources of optimism emerged from participants:
- Syrian civil society has mobilized effectively to meet humanitarian needs in many areas and is helping to preserve a sense of Syrian identity;
- Syrian women are far less vulnerable to sectarian appeals than men and can play an important role in the search for a political solution and a unifying Syrian identity.
There is some hope still for the UN freeze proposal, which is viewed positively inside Syria even if many of those outside have given up on it.
These few moments of optimism sprouted in an atmosphere that was otherwise gloomy. The general expectation is that the fighting in Syria will continue, with even more calamitous consequences for its people and dire risks for the region.