The prospects for the removal of Syria’s Assad regime and a near-term transition to a “moderate opposition” are poorer than ever, according to a new RAND report. But there is a chance for the new administration in Washington to make real progress on de-escalating the conflict and contributing to stability in Syria if it focuses on a realistic but achievable end-state: a decentralized Syria based on agreed zones of control recognized and supported by outside partners.
“A post-combat stabilization plan establishing local governance is absolutely essential,” analyst Frederic Hof writes for Foreign Policy. “It can draw on Syrian local councils that have been forced underground by the Islamic State, the Syrian nationalist opposition, Syrian civil servants, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in its own localities,” he adds.
Local councils face many challenges since they operate in areas suffering the ravages of war, including ongoing bombardment by Assad’s forces. Yet there are many opportunities to enhance their effectiveness, says the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.
But the councils are attempting “need more help to build and maintain effective institutional structures,” notes John Cappello, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They need to better communicate with other groups that have established similar structures, in the hopes of linking together the neighboring self-protection areas as an alternative to the Assad regime. They also need to learn from one another and to help each other,” he writes for The Hill.
The prospects for national reconciliation and post-conflict transitional justice appear bleak, but Syrian democrats must make appropriate preparations, says scholar Radwan Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
Proposed safe zones have received an ambivalent response from Syrian activists.
“The safe zones are only temporary and not well defined. We have been keen on establishing such zones, but following the control of all these extremist groups we fear to return to Syria,” said Noor Burhan, program manager at the Center for Civil Society Development and director of the I am She Network. “The stability of these zones is far-fetched since this is linked to the general situation in the entire country, where there is no comprehensive solution or a political transition,” she told Al-Monitor.
Russia’s primary objective in Syria is to prevent the U.S. from engaging in regime change; it is not interested in constructing a new order, says Henri J. Barkey, the Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The Obama administration, while pursuing a strategy of replacing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was more interested in limiting America’s role in the region by ending the Iraqi misadventure. This explains its cautious approach to the Syrian regime, he writes for Cypher Brief.
Once Mosul and Raqqa have been liberated and the “Caliphate” destroyed, the United States should engage diplomatically and militarily to ensure appropriate outcomes in both Syria and Iraq, the Washington Institute’s James F. Jeffrey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week.
“The immediate goals are relief to liberated populations and protection of civilians against ill-disciplined victorious factions,” he said. “But governance and security decisions taken immediately will have an impact on the attitudes of the population toward their liberators, and if ill-considered could encourage a return of ISIS or al-Qaeda.”
No one denies that Assad regime is winning the war. It owes its ascendancy as much to its opponents’ disunity and incompetence as to its own effectiveness, says analyst Charles Glass.
“Rebel policy, whichever group was involved, was to seize and hold terrain for as long as possible in violation of every tenet of guerrilla warfare. The local people welcomed the rebels in some places and tolerated them in others,” he writes for the New York Review of Books:
In both cases, opposition fighters failed to shield people from the regime’s sieges and assaults as well as the misbehavior of their own “rogue elements.” Rather than wage a mobile guerrilla war and build a solid coalition within the population, they occupied land they could not hold. This alienated many Syrians whom the rebels could not govern and risked the lives of those they could not defend. The rebels failed to create effective alliances among their more than a thousand armed bands. Their reliance for arms and other support on rival outside powers—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, with the United States, Britain, and France in the wings—left the rebel groups vulnerable to the antagonistic and variable priorities of their sponsors.