Empowering local actors, devolving power can assist Syria’s transition process


If the United States screens refugees for security risks, 59% of Americans support taking in refugees from the conflicts in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, while 41% oppose, according to a new poll, As for refugees from Syria specifically, 56% of Americans support taking in refugees while 43% oppose, says the poll by Shibley Telhami, cosponsored by the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution and the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. RTWT

The Syrian people are now the representative people of our time, argues Leon Wieseltier, Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution:

That is hardly a distinction to be wished for, to be sure. But it is the Syrian people who have suffered a secular tyranny, and fought for democracy, and experienced the savageries of ethnic ardor, and suffered a religious tyranny, and endured terrorism and chemical weapons and imperialism and the indifference of the West, and lived in internal flight and exile and in external flight and exile.

There has been no progress made to start the political transition for Syria on Aug. 1, the U.S. State Department said Monday:

“With the current climate, the current environment, it’s hard to get the opposition certainly back to Geneva,” agency spokesman Mark Toner said during a press briefing.

Though the situation in Syria is “better than it was before”, according to Toner, a complete adherence to the deadline should be achieved by Aug. 1 in order to let the political transition begin.  Toner said the U.S. is working to make the political transition happen, however, he added that it would be possible only with the coordination of other countries. 

The ultimate goal of a transition process is an inclusive, unified, democratic Syria, according to the RAND Corporation‘s Philip H. Gordon, James Dobbins, and Jeffrey Martini. As the international community continues to search for ways to resolve Syria’s civil war, decentralization of governance could be part of the solution, they write for the Council on Foreign Relations:

Syria has a history of highly centralized state control that has stunted the country’s development and contributed to the exclusion of significant parts of society. Devolution of power to localities can assist the transition process by lowering the stakes of the conflict, providing security to Syrians who have lost trust in the state, and deferring some of the fundamental issues that will require a drawn-out negotiation between Syria’s various factions. Some form of decentralization may also figure in any final political settlement in the event that Syrians prove unable to agree on a unitary state and the composition of a central government.

Too often, in discussing Syria, we posit a choice between working with the central government and working with unsavory non-state actors, fellow Brookings analyst Tamara Cofman Wittes said in recent testimony  before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

There is an obvious additional option, already in play, that deserves greater emphasis: empowering and engaging local municipalities, local business sectors, local civil society, and other actors who exist in territory not under extremist or regime control and who have an obvious stake in the success of their own communities and their defense against coercion either from ISIS or from the Assad government. It is these local actors who will make or break the implementation of any political settlement, because they are the ones who will give it life and legitimacy.

On May 17, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces elected Jawad Abu Hatab [above] as the third president of the opposition’s interim government, Syria Direct reports:

He is the first president to move the organization’s headquarters into Syria since the coalition was founded in March 2013. In its short lifespan, the coalition has cycled through many identities; from an opposition-in-exile mocked for taking Western cash and holding conferences in five-star Turkish hotels to an attempt to re-brand as an inclusive opposition, but one that unfortunately failed to bring the largest Kurdish movements under its umbrella.

Plagued by charges of corruption within, a shadowy Muslim Brotherhood presence and the inevitable calculation that its allies only controlled 2 percent of the ground inside Syria, the coalition seemed at some point to fade into oblivion. Now, the election of Abu Hatab signals the interim government’s attempts to address widespread criticism of ineffective and out-of-touch governance.


To date, the American military approach to ISIS in Syria has consisted of periodic air attacks and circumscribed ground operations by Kurdish-dominated irregulars—hardly the formula for decisive results, notes Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

What would the American-led anti-ISIS coalition do if Russia, Iran and the Assad regime were to shift their focus from collective punishment of Syrian civilians to fighting ISIS? Would coalition aircraft simply vanish from the skies over Syria? Hof asks in Newsweek:

Could Russian calls for joint air operations against the organization President Obama wishes to “degrade and destroy” be resisted? Would Washington have any option other than to facilitate, in effect, the restoration of Assad regime authority in eastern Syria, leaving that regime free to go door-to-door in its lethal hunt for civil society activists who have opposed both it and ISIS?

To improve the effectiveness of moderate Syrian voices by promoting increased communication and cooperation between opposition political activists outside Syria and activists and emerging leaders operating inside the country, the National Endowment for Democracy is backing the International Republican Institute’s Schools of Politics. The Institute will conduct at least four strategic communications and coalition building trainings that will develop participants’ ability to cooperate more effectively in addressing common goals and engaging key constituencies inside Syria.

Syrian refugees, “have been dispossessed of many things, but not of their human rights,” Wieseltier writes. “Nobody—not Assad, not ISIS, not Putin, not Khameini, not the fascists of Europe—can deprive them of their humanity. Indeed, in their courage, and in their devotion to their children, and in their dream of democracy, they are giving us all lessons in humanity.”


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