Containing the Syrian conflict will require creative diplomacy, not just with Saudi Arabia and Qatar: The EU and US need to bring Iraq into the transition process.
After a tyrant falls, a fractured and politically estranged opposition return to their homeland and struggle for legitimacy. Meanwhile radical forces fill a security vacuum, exploiting sectarian divisions to fuel terrifying violence which polarises a nascent political process. Before long, the joy of ending dictatorship turns to misery as the population face huge infrastructural damage, countless refugees and a growing Hobbesian dystopia. A new war begins.
That’s the nightmare that happened to Iraq in the months and years following the fall of Saddam, and there’s every reason to be concerned that a similar fate awaits a post Assad Syria.
But there’s a shred of good news: in Washington, the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies (SCPSS) held its first conference last month, building on the work of USIP’s Day After Project (TDAP.) SCPSS brings together Syrians and an international panel of post conflict experts, stating a will to “establish a new culture of legitimacy and overcome the legacy of the past by engaging in a national reconciliation.”
This is a gargantuan task: the fact that the National Coalition and its military SMC have some elected members and that the NC leader recently visited northern Syria is a good start, but it is far from “legitimacy.” And as for “reconciliation,” Iraq has shown us how a brutalised population are dangerously unpredictable when it comes to seeking justice.
So how can we ensure transitional justice will be fairly enforced? Since there is foreign involvement and funding for the transition, will war criminals face the death penalty? If they don’t then will victims demand it as a sovereign right? This was the case in Iraq when Paul Bremer tried to ban capital punishment, another idea which soon ran into the reality of the Iraqi street.
Additionally, a process that focuses on the crimes of the regime could lead to “a victor’s peace” where Alawites and pro-regime Sunnis live in fear, just as so many Sunnis fear the Ba’athist label in Iraq today.
And we haven’t even begun to answer questions about how to enforce transitional justice: that involves the difficult question of building a security force that represents Syrian society.
Such a force would be drawn from a dangerously loose alliance of rebel groups and former soldiers and would need to focus on thorough vetting and training: quality not quantity, loyalty to society and not militias - the opposite of what happened in Iraq.
TDAP addresses this issue and many others but is understandably vague in specifics. But the fact that planning has started with 40 Syrian representatives (including SNC members) is an encouraging start. Unfortunately, TDAP again focuses on transitional justice as well as constitutional issues.
This is essential, as is stopping war criminals from escaping Syria. But the Iraq experience shows that it’s more important to secure borders to stop those who want to spoil the political process than track down the old elite: in 2003, coalition Special Forces wasted precious time going after aging Ba’athists even as al-Qaeda pushed the country to civil war. It was clear who was a greater danger, so the SNC and international actors must focus on coordinating efforts in the same way that coordination eventually restricted jihadist entry to Iraq.
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SNC-Iraq dialogue is key here to ensure that al-Qaeda affiliates and pro-Iranian groups such as the Jaish al-Sha’bi are denied further arms and support.
A real diplomatic coup would bring Iraq into the transition process, something not out of the question since Maliki is also opposed to radical Shia groups as much as he is concerned about al-Qaeda. Likewise, an Iraqi delegate in Washington recently noted how “Bashar al-Assad has hurt Iraq the same as Saddam Hussein.”
The chance of further SNC-Iraq cooperation (they last met in September) is slim, as Shillman- Ginsberg Fellow at The Middle East Forum Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi tells me,
“I don't see further cooperation or meaningful contact between the NC and Maliki. The former body is now trying to get its members involved on the ground (Moaz al-Khatib visiting rebel-held areas; Michel Kilo helping to broker a truce between FSA and PYD in the town of Ras al-Ayn), while the Maliki government has even provided medical care to Syrian soldiers wounded at a border crossing. Their paths have diverged ever more and are irreconcilable.”
But al-Tamimi concedes there may be a slim chance of future cooperation, noting,
“Maybe if the NC becomes a transitional government post-Assad and Maliki is still around, it might turn to Baghdad for the sake of strengthening economic ties in return for security guarantees (we have seen Egypt, in its financial desperation, now striking an oil deal with Baghdad and signing economic agreements for reconstruction and return of Egyptian workers to Iraq).”
The chance of fostering cooperation may be slim, but represents the best hope of shutting down the opportunists already benefitting from chaos, and could transform the worsening dynamic of the region: the key lies not in removing Assad (which is inevitable) it lies in actively showing Baghdad that the US and Turkey are not arming Salafists. Without such cooperation, unilateral moves to arm the rebels remain dangerous.
But Iraq shows us how smart regional diplomacy and well supported moderates can eventually triumph over the extremist minority. Helping enable such a victory would ensure the safety of future government personnel, key infrastructure, Assad’s WMDs and religious sites like the Shrine of Sayyidah Zainab.
If this site were to be attacked we would likely see much wider violence than what occurred after the 2006 attack on the al-Askari Mosque in Iraq, but it’s not mentioned in TDAP and international actors would be wise to prioritise the site’s security. Without stopping such terrorism, political priorities could be reduced to evading assassination, and the prospect of conflict overspill increases.
Nonetheless, TDAP’s recommendations such as securing prisons in case Assad releases all prisoners (as Saddam did) and securing things like government documentsare encouraging suggestions.
If this situation seems hopeless, it is only because the international response remains poorly coordinated: foreign donors have barely scraped together $1 billion and the SNC mention the need for $60 billion. Meanwhile, Iraq reconstruction cost over $220 billion and is still crawling along even with oil revenues Syria could never dream of.
TDAP and SCPSS are a good start, but only highlight how much more needs to be done. The Iraq experience shows us that Syria’s coming days represent a “golden hour”, the time referred to by doctors where treatment of a casualty means the difference between life and death. Whatever is done, it must be coordinated (involving all regional allies, especially Iraq) and it must happen now: the patient Syria cannot afford to lose any more blood.
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