Faced with the unpalatable choice of standing by while Bashar al-Assad massacres Syria’s people or engaging in a violent and unpredictable conflict, the international community should prepare to assist a future transition, while avoiding the unintended consequences of badly designed assistance, write Dr Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart (above), respectively chair and director of the Institute for State Effectiveness. Before preparing and implementing a strategy, both policymakers and donors must have a comprehensive understanding of the situation. In a new report, they outline recommendations for working groups and members of the international community; develop scenarios for transition; identify relevant peace-building lessons from the past; and pinpoint issues to be addressed in articulating and implementing a post-Assad agenda
Although the contours of any possible transition will be shaped by the evolving context, lessons can be learned from the global experience of the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of the 21st century—lessons which might help Syria not only avoid the deepening of civil war but move towards restructuring itself as a legitimate modern state.
Conditions in Syria are still too uncertain to create a definitive plan. Instead, we recommend the creation of working groups to prepare and ready a common agenda if the political opportunity presents itself, building on work of exercises such as the Day After Project of the United States Institute for International Peace. The more clearly and credibly a post-Assad agenda can be articulated—and the broader the consensus around it—the more likely the transition is to succeed. Grounded in an understanding of the lessons and methods described above, working groups could and should immediately address each of the following issues:
i. the legal framework
ii. Provision of security
iii. internal reorganisation of the state
iV. media and access to information
V. Public finance
Vi. social and economic development
Vii. immediate stabilisation measures
Viii. relations with the region and the international community.
A Reconstruction Conference, perhaps held under the auspices of the Arab League, should be immediately convened in order to help create a common action plan, and to allow the international community to make conditional commitments to a common trust fund.
In preparing for the opening of political dialogue in Syria, our comparative reading suggests that decision-makers should closely consider key operational and process issues, without which the process can become abstract and vague. Our recommendations for tangible engagement include:
- Keep the content narrow and defined
- Carefully balance short term trade-offs vs. long term stability
- Address the question of sovereignty and a realistic timeline for resumption of full sovereignty for Syria if there is a form of limited sovereignty for any transition period
- Pay attention to the implementation of a new constitution, elections, delivery of basic services, and security
- Mobilise and organise outside resources early
- Concentrate on building a role for civil society and pay attention to citizens and not just to military and political factions
Although there are many possible scenarios for a situation as complex as Syria, we have chosen four, into which others can be collapsed. Full development of each of these scenarios will require working with people on the ground to help them weigh the consequences of their decisions. Preparation for each of these scenarios is not only possible, it is essential, as events are not within any single person’s control and any of these scenarios may yet unfold.
Accommodation of an Assad Regime Without Assad
Despite the mutual antagonism, a bargain between core elements of the regime and the opposition could produce an accommodation acceptable to both sides. The regime may decide to acknowledge a stalemate if it runs out of money, has difficulty replenishing its arsenal, or paying its soldiers; if Iran and Russia decide not to provide armaments without payment; and if the personal toll grows too high and the number of defections increases.
At such a juncture, the two sides could cut a deal which made the regime more inclusive while at the same time avoiding retribution for the acts of violence committed by both sides. Guatemala, El Salvador and Sudan are all cases where an impasse was acknowledged, and where both sides agreed to pay a significant price in order to achieve a peaceful compromise.
Some of the Syrian opposition have thought through this possibility before. In their Damascus Manifesto of 2000, prominent figures within Syria proposed gradual reforms.
The advantages of such a scenario are that it preserves the livelihoods of some of Syria’s leadership—a necessity ignored by de-Ba’athification in Iraq—but allows for eventual transition to a multi-party regime, constitutional reform, and elections held at a date mutually acceptable to the two sides. The political energies of the street could be diverted into electoral politics.
This approach would require a robust and active approach to transitional justice and forgiveness in order to take steps toward a peaceful future. Without a process for reestablishing rule of law and addressing grievances there would be a significant risk of retribution, further eroding trust, and derailing the peace process.
There are risks to this scenario as well. Discontented insurgents could re-mobilise against this type of accommodation. Security might become criminalised. Insurgent leaders might not have sufficient influence or be sufficiently representative. If the dynamics that produced the street movement are ignored—the youth bulge, inequality, economic exclusion and marginalisation—the risk of a recurrence of conflict is significant.
Illusive Peace and Stability Leading to Instability and Deepening Civil War
If elites fail to reach mutually acceptable terms; if they cannot persuade their constituencies to accept an agreement; if they do not exert control over armed forces; if they are unable to address the concerns of the youth; or if regional powers do not accept the accommodation and continue to fuel warfare; the outcome might be an illusive ‘peace’ which is frequently broken by renewed conflict.
Without an agreed-upon political process and steady movement towards clear goals, steps would be reactive and improvised. The political system would remain divisive and corrupt, leading to deepening distrust, criminality, and a resumption of fighting. The window that seemed open would quickly close, as in Afghanistan during the 1990s, as well as Kenya at the time of the elections in 2007 and Liberia in 1996, which suffered a decade of internal and external infighting and conflict negotiation between warlords.
Recognition would provide the insurgent government with access to a range of resources and could help tip the balance between the regime and the insurgency. Equally, the conflict could settle into a prolonged civil war, with neither side controlling the entire country. Biafra in Nigeria as well as Montenegro, Croatia, and Kosovo in former Yugoslavia are all examples of regional insurgencies that gained control of territory and demanded recognition. The consolidation of insurgencies in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Mindanao in the Philippines forced governments to start a serious programme of reforms to address the concerns of the insurgency.
Unlike Syria, where the insurgency is largely comprised of the majority Sunni population, these insurgencies were spurred by the demands of ethnic minorities. And although some of them ended peacefully, Lebanon’s example is sobering: a Middle Eastern country left to struggle with civil war for a full fifteen years. In such conditions, peace-making becomes particularly complex. The human cost is considerable and long-lasting, and the risk that violence bleeds into neighbouring countries increases substantially with a prolonged civil conflict.
A New Beginning
In this scenario, the state would be fully reconstructed, resulting in a pluralistic, inclusive Republic, held together by a national agreement on rules of the game and supported by regional and international stakeholders. Central to this scenario is a roadmap for building effective institutions that will foster accountability and stability.
The trigger for this scenario is a victory, military or otherwise, for the insurgency, followed by an agreement to re-write the constitution and reconstruct state institutions. Optimally the insurgency’s local organisational capabilities would be supported and expanded, allowing for a bottom up democratisation process. Political parties would be allowed, and the Ba’athists could regroup and participate. There would be a transition from a unitary single party state to a multi-party system.
A successful settlement would also require an inclusive economic plan for Syria; a reasonable transitional period with clear milestones; a relatively small but efficient peace-keeping force stationed in the capital; a major package of assistance from the Gulf as well as Mediterranean trade access agreements. An inclusive conversation, focused on the nation and on ideas of democracy would lie at the heart of such a transition. Instead of a compact of elites, a new Syrian government would obtain its legitimacy from the citizens, thanks to a new constitution and a democratic process.
Examples of countries that have successfully navigated a new start include Spain in 1975, Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk, Colombia with its national convention and generation of a consensus on the way forward, Rwanda in the aftermath of genocide, and Karnataka and Bihar at the sub-national level in India.
To date, regional and international actors have not intervened militarily or directly in Syria, at least not overtly. But this could change: in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, the international community felt forced to intervene to impose peace when other mechanisms had failed or had begun too late. In an ‘imposed peace’ scenario, the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime—perhaps culminating in a ‘Srebrenica’ moment—enflame regional and international public opinion, and the international community, in the form of the UN, the Arab League, or an international coalition, reaches consensus on the need to intervene.
After the decision to act, no-fly zones and safe havens could be established and troops could even end up being deployed, probably under a carefully-worded mandate on the use of force. Parties to the conflict could be brought to the table and a peace agreement imposed. An interim international administration could be established, with sovereignty divided or taken over (as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and East Timor).
While they can effectively put an end to violence, interventions do not always create a clear roadmap for transition. Temporary measures can become entrenched. An interim administration, in the absence of a timetable or benchmarks for handover, can become semi-permanent, as happened in Iraq. Parallel structures established to exercise state functions in the short term become permanent, and the international community’s presence distorts politics, society, and the economy.
This is an extract from a longer report, Preparing for a Syrian Transition, published by the London-based Legatum Institute, in partnership with the Institute for State Effectiveness. The ISE works with countries aiming to make transitions from instability to stability and from poverty to prosperity.