Negotiating With Assad -- The Only Way to Save Syria

Negotiating With Assad -- The Only Way to Save Syria

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Editor's Note: By the time Assad is deposed, the Syrian state might well disappear, argues commentator Ghassan Michel Rubeiz. Rubeiz, a social scientist and political commentator, is the former secretary of the Middle East for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.


To save Syria’s sovereignty and avert wider regional instability, rebel forces should be urged to negotiate with the ruling regime of President Bashar al Assad. Serious political reform cannot be achieved on the battlefield of an escalating, sectarian civil war.

Washington’s siding with the rebels as it passively promotes the forceful removal of Assad has not worked out. By the time Assad is deposed, the Syrian state as we know it might well disappear.

Washington should discourage Saudi Arabia and Qatar from taking the lead in planning for the future of Syria. Moreover, Moscow must push Assad to accept radical reforms. Increased pressure, meanwhile, should be brought to bear on both the opposition and the regime toward achieving a settlement.

It is not inconceivable that under such an agreement, Assad could eventually be eased out nonviolently; he may already be considering ways to avoid facing the moral and practical implications of rebuilding a country destroyed on his watch. Even supporters of the regime would not want to keep Assad on the throne under such terms.

The cost of the status quo is too high. The war has already claimed more than 80,000 lives and displaced upwards of five million. Its effects are being felt beyond the country’s borders in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, not to mention Turkey and Israel, where the latest flare up with Palestinians is being partially blamed on the Syrian crisis.

In Lebanon, the half million Syrian refugees that have crossed into the country have added to an equal number of Palestinian refugees already there. Together, these two groups comprise a quarter of Lebanon’s entire population. In Jordan, Syrian refugees are upending demographics in the kingdom and adding to its instability.

It is also clear that neither side in the conflict is capable on its own of achieving a decisive military victory. While the uprising has lately scored small victories, government forces maintain dominant air power and the support of a significant part of the population.

The lingering stalemate, meanwhile, is beginning to take on a Cold War dynamic. In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad relies on Iran for military assistance and on Russia for political support. The Lebanese Hezbollah militia supports the Syrian regime by fighting the rebels inside Syria.

The opposition, meanwhile, depends largely on Saudi Arabia and Qatar for material, military and political aid. The United States and some European countries offer the rebels material assistance and diplomatic guidance, while Washington coordinates with Jordan and Israel to orchestrate an outcome favorable to their interests. The United States is also training Syrian rebels in Jordan.

Equally as troubling and in an echo of events in Libya, rebel forces in Syria have been infiltrated by a massive entry of foreign fighters financed largely by Arab donors. Their aim of establishing some form of post-Assad political stability is nothing but a mirage, a fact amply demonstrated by the outcomes in states swept up in the events of the Arab Spring. Any meaningful solution in Syria and these other nations will not come about without first integrating deep political and societal change.

More to the point, in Syria the outcome of sectarian civil war is sectarian state building.

Barring negotiations, the violence will likely continue to tear at the national fabric of what had long been a largely secular society. Sectarian killings, such as those increasingly seen in Iraq, are becoming more frequent.

Amid such violent devolution, fissures are erupting as ethnic groups begin to retrench. The ethnic Druze may be forced southward, near the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. The Alawites -- to which the Assad family belongs – will look to retreat to their coastal district in the West. The three million Kurds in the northeast, the only group that aspires to “liberation” from the state in a post-Assad era, could exploit the deepening political vacuum by separating to form a “Syrian Kurdistan.”

The majority Sunnis -- who form the bulk of the opposition -- could end up occupying the central and larger part of the country. Their ranks are far from unified, though, as secular (nationalist and Ba’athist) and religious (Salafi and the Muslim Brotherhood) vie for control.

Negotiation between the opposition and the Assad government is the only viable means of stopping the bloodshed, preserving the nation’s sovereignty, and containing the sectarian tension.