The conflict in Syria was “extremely bad and getting worse.” That’s what Lakhdar Brahimi, special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League and one of the world’s most skillful diplomats, told the Security Council in late September. The major powers listened but offered no new ideas on how to end the crisis. We need to change direction.
Up to now, two strategies have been pursued. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general and Brahimi’s predecessor as special envoy, tried to negotiate a cease-fire and forge a consensus among the great and middle powers. That failed.
A second strategy has been to assist the fragmented opposition to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states and Turkey have provided guns. Other governments, including the United States, are helping. The opposition is much stronger than when the uprising began 18 months ago, and it can now attack the regime almost everywhere. The opposition is encouraged by international support, and some seek foreign intervention to hasten Assad’s fall. That is unlikely to happen.
The Syrian army remains strong enough to retake areas seized by the rebels, and it is being resupplied by Iran and supported by Russia. Assad retains some support in the country, and the security forces — led by family and his minority Alawite clan — have remained a potent force, despite defections. They are fighting hard because they fear that defeat will mean their annihilation. Moreover, the regime fears that compromise could be construed as weakness.
With the two sides balanced and resisting serious negotiations, the conflict won’t be over soon. Indeed, Syria might very well be entering the second year of a decade-long civil war. Each year, the sectarian violence will worsen, atrocities will multiply, the most fundamentalist elements will grow stronger and neighboring countries will become more involved.
Some have urged the U.S. to increase military support for the opposition, but President Obama’s caution is wise. If the U.S. goes down this road, it cannot afford to lose, but it is unlikely to “win” soon or inexpensively. Americans are weary of wars in the Middle East, and they learned in Iraq that winning can be elusive. In Syria, the winners might be jihadis, and one result could be a regional war by and against the Kurds.
This is the time for a new goal and strategy, and Brahimi is the man because it was he who defined the terms that provided Lebanon an exit from its long civil war. The goal should not be to overthrow Assad, however desirable that might be to many. The goal should be to construct a path to a political system that provides voice and vote for all Syrians, and institutional checks and balances to protect all minorities and sects.
What would the agreement look like? At the start of the uprising, the Assad government proposed reforms of election administration, political parties, the media and nongovernmental organizations, among others. That is the right agenda, but the reforms were so flawed that no one took them seriously. Last year, representing the Carter Center, Hrair Balian and I discussed with the Assad government an approach that would modify the reforms to make them credible and convincing to the democratic opposition.
Some senior government officials supported the idea, but at that time, the security forces were sure they could crush the opposition. They were mistaken.
As the government and opposition will not deal with each other, the special envoy should shuttle between them to craft credible reforms that could permit an internationally supervised election that protects all groups. A U.N. peacekeeping force would be essential to oversee and implement the agreement. With the conflict intensifying but stalemated, it is hard to imagine any serious leader denying the reforms.
Is democracy possible in Syria? It seems improbable. But the most likely alternative — a decade-long descent into self-destruction — is too awful to contemplate. The time might be ripe to place the weight of the international community behind a third option.
Robert A. Pastor is a professor of international relations at American University in Washington and the author of The North American Idea. He is a senior advisor to the Carter Center on conflict resolution in the Middle East.