A possible political solution for Syria
Syria's religious and ethnic minorities are faced with difficult choices as the Syrian conflict shows no sign of abating.
They, along with the rest of the country, have suffered at the hands of the Assad regime, which has unrelentingly assaulted the civilian populace and persecuted any political, religious or intellectual figure that dares question the Assad family’s legitimacy to rule Syria.
Rich in diversity, Syria hosts a significant number of Syriac Christians and other Christian denominations, as well as a Kurdish community that under Baathist rule was marginalized.
Many pro-Iran media outlets in the West continue to push the narrative that without the Assad regime, Syria’s minorities will face almost sure destruction.
In Washington, this narrative has gained much currency among a vast spectrum of politicians.
One of Congress’ most colorful proponents of the Assad regime, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, from California, recently used this tired canard while attempting to block additional congressional sanctions on the regime.
And while it may be easy to laugh off characters such as Rohrabacher, American social media are packed with fake news sites claiming that the Assad regime defends Christians and other minorities in Syria.
I was recently in Cairo where I had the chance to talk with Syrian Christian, Arab and Kurdish opposition figures.
On May 3, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Jarba, a Shammar tribal leader and a leading Syrian opposition figure, led a conference of the Syrian National Democratic council hosted by Cairo.
The ongoing discussions in Astana, Kazakhstan, for cease-fire parameters do not offer much hope in the long run. Although a deal appears to have been struck on ‘zones of de-escalation,’ neither side can agree on the details of a cease-fire nor on a true enforcement mechanism.
Al-Jarba is leading a group of Arab fighters in the eastern Syrian countryside who are helping the Kurds and other Syrian rebels battle Daesh.
This gathering was a sign of Kurdish-Arab and Muslim-Christian solidarity. Al-Jarba was joined by the head of the Syrian Kurdish National Council and the head of the Syriac Council.
The Syrian National Democratic Council and its diverse members want to impress that the Assad regime does not put Syrian Christian interests above all.
According to Rudaw, an English language Kurdish news service, Al-Jarba has raised a tribal force of approximately 3,000 Syrian Arab fighters to battle Daesh in the Raqqa countryside.
US special forces recently agreed to provide training and support to Jarba’s Syrian Elite Forces that seek to encircle the remaining pockets of Daesh fighters and cut them off from the group’s self-declared capital Raqqa.
A formula that may be successful in the fight against Daesh will require Arab-Kurdish cooperation, as well as the cooperation of Syriac fighters from Christian villages in northeast Syria.
President of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq Masoud Barazani could, under one scenario, lend the support of Kurdish peshmerga to help Sunni Arab forces and allies not only defeat Daesh in Raqqa, but also to ensure that Daesh does not re-emerge.
This would first necessitate an end to the fight against Daesh in Mosul.
Compounding the difficulty of finding a sustainable strategy against Daesh, US forces partnered in Syria mainly with the problematic PYD, which the Turkish government considers a terror group.
Moreover, there is no real plan for after Raqqa.
When asked this week who will administer Raqqa once Daesh is defeated, a US military representative failed to come up with a clear answer.
The PYD will attempt to place proxies to administer the city, and this could be problematic, for it could offer a reason to the Assad regime and Iran — who both cooperate from time to time with the PYD — to eventually take over Raqqa and launch a campaign to retake the rest of eastern Syria.
At this time, a sustainable peace agreement for Syria is nowhere near the horizon.
The ongoing discussions in Astana, Kazakhstan, for cease-fire parameters do not offer much hope in the long run.
Although a deal appears to have been struck on “zones of de-escalation,” neither side can agree on the details of a cease-fire nor on a true enforcement mechanism.
Indeed, the Russian government remains stalwart in its denial that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun, which makes it difficult to see how Moscow could prevent future Assad regime attacks against civilians in the prescribed zones.
It also means that the fighting will continue for some time to come.
So the question is how to ensure that Syria’s Christians and Kurds are protected, not only from the extremist Daesh excesses but also from an Assad regime that is now totally dependent on Iran-backed Shiite extremist militants?
A three-prong approach is in order.
First, ensure that the final push to liberate Raqqa and the strategic city of Deir Ezzor is not undertaken without a clear political framework.
Two, ensure that Sunni Arab tribes are offered the necessary tools and military support to defeat Daesh and hold liberated territory.
And three, ensure that any political solution for Syria includes groups such as the National Democratic Council, to show the world that Kurds and Christians can coexist with Arab countrymen in Syria without the need for Assad’s rule.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.