Locate middle ground between autocrats and extremists in Syria


Six years after the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, the parties involved, whether aligned with the Assad regime, the Sunni jihadists, or others, have increasingly wielded extreme tactics to pursue non-inclusive goals. But a number of entities still emphasize — to varying degrees — pluralism, religious tolerance, and individual freedoms, according to a new analysis.

These groups consist primarily of exiles, armed Free Syrian Army formations that defend their communities but still rely on jihadists to take offensive actions, and marginalized opposition blocs tolerated by the Assad regime, say analysts James Bowker and Andrew Tabler. In selecting groups to work with in Syria during and after its civil war, the United States will likely need to weigh criteria besides rhetoric to locate a middle ground between autocrats and extremists, they write in The Narrowing Field of Syria’s Opposition, a report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

Political organization, viability, and control of territory and constituencies will be key, as will the support such groups receive from Syria’s neighbors that have carved out spheres of influence inside the country. Six years into the Syrian war, the United States has little to show for the billions of dollars it has spent propping up opponents of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Yet as a de facto partition looms—and both the Assad regime and opposition face manpower shortages—Washington may yet be able to wield its influence more effectively. In the past, U.S. goals were often viewed through the lens of democracy promotion and regime change. In the future, by comparison, they are likely to be seen as efforts to both combat jihadism and hedge against the return of the durable safe havens in which jihadists train. RTWT

The future of Syria likely involves “zones of influence,” a soft partition of Syria with a weak central government, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams says on the Daily Standard podcast. One of those zones may be an Alawite zone with “significant Russian influence, and we can live with that,” adds Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

U.S. objectives should include defeating ISIS militarily, securing the liberated areas, standing up and protecting effective Syrian governance in liberated areas, and establishing conditions for political transition in Syria, writes Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.  “Until a strategy for accomplishing those objectives is blessed by the president and implemented, one salient fact should guide American policy vis-à-vis Bashar al-Assad: with civilians on the regime bullseye, nothing good politically can happen in terms of resolving Syria’s armed conflict,” he adds.

It is only with a political transition that we can achieve a secure, democratic Syria, argues Bassma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition body negotiating peace talks in Geneva.

We do not want imposed regime change. We do not want a vacuum,” she writes for the Washington Post. “We want the conditions for Syrians to be able to decide their future. To get there, we want the United States — in concert with others — to lay the foundations that will compel the regime to abandon its military strategy. This will enable us to secure a peace deal.”

Assad’s departure should be negotiated with Syrian civil society leadership to legitimize the claim to power of a civilian government, observers suggest:

It’s been repeatedly shown that solutions to complicated problems can’t be imposed from outside. They won’t be sustainable and often do harm. Solutions have to come from inside a country’s own civil society. Otherwise, the result is to undermine the legitimacy of the same systems of politics and justice that are necessary to hold a population together in the long term. At present there is little left of Syrian civil society, but local councils continue to provide the connective tissue that holds the country together in areas not held by Assad. These organizations can jump-start efforts to create new democratic institutions.

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