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A better way to end Syria’s civil war

by Sami Mahroum

The agreement reached between the United States and Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons ties the disarmament process to negotiations aimed at ending the country’s civil war.

That is surely a sensible approach. Unfortunately two major problems with the proposed Geneva-based process will prevent it from achieving its goal. But an alternative formula might just work.

The first problem with the U.S.-Russian approach is a failure to recognize the constraints facing the warring parties. The current regime — maintained for more than 40 years as a unitary, all-encompassing actor — has little leeway to offer concessions: There is no such thing as a part-time dictatorship.

Any political agreement with the opposition would require the transfer of control of at least some political, security and economic resources that have been controlled by President Bashar Assad’s family and its inner circle.

A regime that is so heavily indebted to its supporters is highly unlikely to accept such an outcome, which would reduce its ability to reward — and, more important, to protect — its loyalists at home and abroad. For example, a post-conflict Syria in which the opposition controls a substantial part of the state is unlikely to maintain a strong relationship with Iran and Hezbollah.

The opposition is in a similar position, though for the opposite reason: It is far from being a unitary actor. As a loose umbrella of very different groups, the opposition would be likely to experience a dynamic similar to that on the government side, with a power-sharing formula, however temporary and transitional, leaving Assad’s opponents with fewer resources than they would have if they had full control of the state. This alone would intensify conflict and divisiveness within the opposition, potentially leading many within its ranks to reject any peace settlement, prolonging the conflict.

The second problem with the U.S.-Russian peace-process approach is its definition of the parties to the conflict: the Assad regime and the opposition. Some segments of Syrian society, particularly religious minorities, remain on the regime side for fear of the unknown; but they do not trust the regime to safeguard their interests. This is particularly true for Christians and Druze, but also for secular elements within the Sunni majority.

What is needed is a shift in the way the conflict is perceived. The reality is that both the regime and the opposition comprise a wide spectrum of groups that stand on one side of the conflict or the other for a variety of group-specific reasons.

So far, the international community has recognized this diversity only on the opposition side. This has allowed the regime to claim some legitimacy, while denying intimidated third-party groups a voice. Thus, instead of insisting on a peace process that brings the regime and the opposition together, the political path to peace in Syria should bring the many different segments of Syrian society together, regardless of which side of the conflict they are on.

Representatives of the Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds and Sunnis, as well as representatives of nonreligious groups and smaller minorities, should go to Geneva to help create a new political contract for a new Syria. Admittedly, choosing representatives from each community will be a challenging task. But, because the talks will aim for a broad national pact (agreeing on issues like freedom of speech and religion) and a temporary transitional period of national-unity government, the representatives can be “wise men” — men and women known to have the respect of their communities.

This approach would circumvent the problem of selecting regime and opposition representatives, which has so far prevented the Geneva talks from taking place. Composing the negotiating teams along ideological, ethnic, and sectarian lines would help to transcend the dichotomy of regime versus opposition.

Groups that the regime claims to represent could represent themselves directly, which might well create incentives for them to disentangle themselves from their support for the regime.

Nonetheless, moving from a two-party negotiation process to a multiparty process has its own hurdles. Multiparty negotiations tend to be more complicated and can drag on indefinitely. But they are also more democratic and more representative, and skilled negotiation design and facilitation can help to mitigate many of the challenges.

This is why it is important to set strict limits on the agenda. Agreement on, say, a commitment to a multi-confessional, secular, and democratic state should be enough. The framework for the transitional period can be borrowed from successful precedents like those established in South Africa and, more recently, Yemen. United Nations facilitators can help the parties involved reach agreements on a transitional government and a road map to a new constitution, referendum, and elections.

The question is what happens until and during the dialogue. This is where the U.N. Security Council can play an important role. It should be easier for all Security Council members, especially China and Russia, to support a plan for an intra-Syrian dialogue that brings all parties together. The Council would permit the use of military power to enforce a cease-fire, regardless of the source of violations. Both the U.S. and Russia might go a step further by creating a joint operations center to monitor a cease-fire and prevent new flows of arms or militants from entering the country.

The international community, especially the U.S., the European Union, China, and Russia, along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, would have no role to play in an intra-Syrian dialogue. But their support would be crucial, because they would pledge to back any agreement coming out of the dialogue and reject any deal that implies the country’s breakup.

Without a pledge to preserve Syria’s unity, very few Syrians would be willing to negotiate. And, without inclusive negotiations, the war will not end.

Sami Mahroum is academic director of innovation and policy at INSEAD. © 2013 Project Syndicate