Local solutions should come first in Syria
Since Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan’s visit to Damascus last week, the discourse in the international community has centered on whether or not to talk to Bashar Assad. Actually, what the international community should do is move from a normative discourse to a more practical one. It should talk to whoever makes a difference on the ground.
The UN-backed meetings in Geneva are not representative of the people, nor can they make a difference on the ground. Assad, despite the claim he has control over 70 percent of the country, in reality has no real control over any part of the country. His army is nothing but a collection of gangs and fragments ruled by Assad-affiliated warlords that take the name “shabiha.” The only two legions that have a cohesive command and control structure are the 4th Armored Division of Maher Assad, which is under Iranian control, and the Tiger Forces commanded by Suhail Al-Hassan that take orders directly from the Russian base of Hmeimim.
So, even if Assad agreed to anything, would he be able to enforce it? Not really. On the other hand, the opposition that meets in Geneva, how much are they in touch with the people on the ground? Again, if they agree to anything, could they enforce it on the ground? Is the armed opposition accountable to them? Not really, the armed opposition is as fragmented as the Syrian army and is only accountable to its foreign backers.
This is only regarding the domestic actors. If we talk about the regional and global players, the situation gets even more complicated. Can we have an agreement whereby the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Iran are all on the same page regarding Syria? Very unlikely.
There is no one solution for the entirety of Syria simply because the landscape is not the same in the different parts of the country. The landscape in the northeast is different from Idlib, which is also different from the southwest and the areas bordering Lebanon. The actors are also different. Jordan is very active in the southwest because it is next to its borders, whereas it has no presence in Idlib.
There is no one solution for the entirety of Syria simply because the landscape is not the same in the different parts of the country
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
In this respect, the international community should set clear, achievable goals and realize that Syria cannot be fixed and become a modern, democratic state as a result of a deal signed in Geneva. The goals should be to stabilize the security situation, ensure the safe return of refugees and jumpstart the local economy so that people can sustain themselves. Once those basic goals are achieved, then the international community can have the luxury of talking about political systems and democracy.
To achieve those three basic goals, a deal needs to be brokered with actors on the ground. In fact, in this approach, at least four deals need to be brokered, each one with different actors.
In the southwestern Deraa region, the international actors are Israel, Jordan and Russia. Israel and Jordan need to have their borders secured. Russia is the one that brokered a deal between opposition groups and the regime in July 2018. The main group, Quwaa Shabab Al-Sunna, which was rebranded as the 8th Brigade, is still very much in charge of the security of the area, of course under Russian tutelage. Hence, the Russian-brokered deal should allow refugees to negotiate an agreement regarding their safe return. In parallel, a plan should be laid out to allow for local development with the involvement of the community.
Regarding the areas around Lebanon, a deal should be clinched with the Iranians and Hezbollah to allow refugees to return. Hezbollah would want to cover its back and make sure no hostile force is at its doorstep.
As for the northeast, the Americans have a moral obligation toward their Kurdish allies, who were instrumental in pushing back against Daesh and still today guard the prisons housing extremists. However, the Americans need to apply pressure to their Kurdish partners to make sure they share power with their Arab neighbors and offer security guarantees to Turkey.
As for Idlib, the main power in control here is Turkey. Idlib also has a high concentration of internally displaced people. When the Russians came to save Assad in 2015, the armed opposition groups had the choice of either reconciling with the regime or taking the green buses to Idlib. The Russian plan was to concentrate the opposition in one place, separate it from the regime and make a truce between them. It could then broker a deal between Assad and the opposition that would stabilize the country and allow Moscow to reap the benefits of its intervention. However, events did not go as expected and Assad kept playing the Russians off against the Iranians in an attempt to remain relevant.
Since then, Idlib has gathered all of the opposition to Assad. Today, they are under Turkish influence. This is why Idlib should be the last area to be handled. Once the other areas of the country are stabilized, then it can be tackled and an orderly return of internally displaced people from Idlib to all the different areas of Syria can be planned.
Given the chaotic situation the country is currently experiencing, the fragmented security situation and the lack of any legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, it is very unrealistic, even pedantic, for the international community to ask the Syrians to agree among themselves and find a settlement that will end the war and transition Syria into a democracy. So, the international community should move from the frame of mind of a comprehensive solution to a series of localized solutions. Once local solutions are found, the Syrian people themselves can find a solution for the entire country.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.