By Julien Barnes-Dacey, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was based in Damascus from 2007 to 2010. The views expressed are his own.
As civil war engulfs Syria talk of politics and diplomacy has fallen silent. The Annan plan, previously bandied around by Western governments as the only way forward, attracts scant attention, while support for the armed opposition is intensifying with the indirect backing of Western governments.
Yet even as the militarization of the opposition gains steam, it’s imperative that efforts aimed at securing a political transition be maintained rather than abandoned as increasingly appears to be the case. As the conflict develops and balances of power shift, new openings will emerge and the international community must be primed to support any opportunities if the country is to be saved from a protracted conflict that could destabilize the entire region.
The logic behind the recent move towards supporting the armed opposition is self-evident. Despite former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s labors, Bashar al-Assad has shown no willingness to initiate any meaningful reform process and continues to use brutal violence to crack down on the opposition. Meanwhile, international diplomacy has floundered in the face of sharp divisions within the U.N. Security Council. Importantly, recent developments on the ground suggest that the tide may slowly be turning. The assassination of key security officials in Damascus, rebel incursions in major cities and a growing number of defections all point to increased rebel capabilities.
However, even as the West tilts towards a military track, it shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that the regime will be easily pushed aside. Al-Assad maintains formidable military might, as well as meaningful support among important elements of the population, and the provision of material support to the rebels is unlikely to prove quickly decisive. Indeed, it’s more likely to encourage a deeper civil war, albeit one in which the opposition possesses greater means of self-defense. This will open the door for the entrenchment of deeply destabilizing forces – violent, communal and religious – that could push the country towards collapse. Recent reporting on the increased prominence of jihadist groups is an ominous sign, and the West shouldn’t fool itself into thinking that Saudi Arabia, a prominent backer of the opposition, cares for the establishment of a meaningful democracy in Syria.
As such, efforts to arm the rebels should be accompanied by a continued drive to facilitate a political solution, even if it remains unlikely at the current juncture. Pointedly, the provision of arms may actually make a political solution more feasible by tilting the balance of power away from the regime or creating a stalemate that pushes both sides towards eventual compromise – but only if there’s a platform to take advantage of any such shift.
There are three specific areas where the West can make a difference. First and foremost, it must urgently mend relations with Russia. Though the West disagrees with Moscow’s stance on Syria, continued grandstanding will only result in ongoing conflict in the Security Council, while cementing Russia's willingness to provide Assad with money and arms. It’s crucial that the West engage in deal-making rather than moralizing and that the different sides come to some sort of agreement whereby Russia and the Security Council can play a positive role. A start would be to recognize some of Russia's concerns and to consent to their proposed peace conference in Moscow between regime and opposition figures. Although unlikely to resolve the conflict, this would at minimum shift some ownership onto Russian shoulders and give them a sense that the West is looking to work with, rather than against, them on Syria.
Second, the West urgently needs to reaffirm its support for Annan's efforts and the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). Annan should be encouraged to continue his mediating efforts, particularly – reflecting another weakness of Western diplomacy – as he’s the only person talking to all of the important actors in the conflict, both domestic and international. Without this dialogue there’s no hope of drawing the different parties towards an eventual compromise. It’s important to remember that continued support from the likes of Iran could help prop the regime up for some time yet – hence the utter urgency of drawing Tehran into the conversation.
Equally, the UNSMIS mission should have its mandate extended, even if its role is restricted due to security concerns. UNSMIS remains the only body monitoring developments on the ground and seeking to mediate between the warring sides, especially now that most diplomats have pulled out of the country. A continued mandate will also allow for the rapid deployment of monitors across the country to support any ceasefire and transition mechanisms if and when they emerge.
Finally, efforts need to be enhanced towards creating a viable road map for the transition. The lack of a credible plan has stoked fears about the real possibility of a post-Assad implosion, while also keeping minorities and fence-sitters from joining the opposition. Ultimately, the opposition must own the process, but rather than spending exorbitant – and ultimately futile – effort trying to unify the different groups, the West should be pushing for public agreement on core principles, notably the importance of an inclusive process that safeguards minority tights. Towards such an end, the West should weaken its reliance on the discredited and absolutist SNC and give greater importance to the internal voices of the opposition who better represent the uprising and who have also shown greater willingness to reach common accord and compromise.
To be sure, these tracks are unlikely to decisively impact the conflict in the immediate short term. Meanwhile, calls to arm the opposition more forcefully will attract growing support. However, a singular focus on strengthening the rebels may only deepen, rather than resolve, the conflict. It must therefore be accompanied by ongoing efforts to incentivize a political transition. Here, the West needs to be doubling its efforts instead of falling into paralysis following the failures of recent months.