In Syria today, there are no easy solutions. In fact, there may be no solutions at all, something that even UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi affirmed. Moreover, unless the objective is to destroy the castle in order to unseat the king, reinforcing the status quo of active conflict will only make Syria’s situation harder to solve.
The war scenes have been horrific over the last several months in Syria, particularly in Aleppo. The army has continued its systematic ground and air campaign, indiscriminately firing into vaguely-defined rebel areas in almost every major city. According to the United Nations, this has included: “murder, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, violations of children’s rights, pillaging, and destruction of civilian objects – including hospitals and schools.”
Aleppo’s historic Souq, purportedly the largest in the entire Middle East, went up in flames in late September. In early October, a blast by the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group ripped through the heart of the city’s main square, brutally killing dozens of civilians and injuring countless more. Violence from all sides continued with varying intensity through the Eid al-Adha holiday.
The Center for New American Security projects five potential scenarios in Syria. Unfortunately, some of these are either unlikely (i.e. #2 managed transition) or ominous (i.e. #5 disintegration of the country). The fourth scenario envisions that Bashar Assad remains in power after a protracted civil war, something that seems completely untenable for regional forces and many Syrians to accept, despite Iran, Russia and perhaps China in support. The first scenario, the sudden death of Assad, is neither a solution nor something to bank on. Even if Assad is killed, his regime is well entrenched in Syria. Scenario number three, which consists of the overthrow of the regime by the armed opposition, appears to be where the U.S., the GCC, and Europe have invested most of their energies, somewhat nervously.
It has become increasingly clear, however, that this latter scenario is dangerous, will not work, and is only leading to a greater conflagration of violence and deaths. UN Envoy Brahimi, who has extensive experience in conflict mitigation from Iraq to Afghanistan, has even told the Saudi King that the crisis “would not be resolved through military means.” Conversely, any scenario that keeps Assad in power and the regime status quo intact is a hollow solution that won’t satisfy the armed opposition, as the breakdown of Kofi Annan’s plan demonstrated (a plan that did not explicitly call for a regime transition). Yet foreign military intervention to dislodge the regime still appears unlikely and counter-productive.
That leaves us with a quixotic proposal that also seems like the only plausible option: the simultaneous call for a universal ceasefire and an immediate process of transition of the regime. Many rebel groups, particularly hardline Salafist jihadist fighters, would hardly be receptive to any ceasefire. Yet, other groups, such as the Farouq Batallion, could welcome a ceasefire if it was accompanied by real change in Syria’s leadership. Such a ceasefire could also be guaranteed by a no-fly-zone. This would give Russia and China comfort that the no-fly-zone is part of a universal cessation of violence, and not one simply imposed on the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, on the regime side, its supporters have already been meeting with opposition groups, demonstrating declining confidence in Assad. Russia has received several opposition delegations, and there are reports that Iran has met with the Muslim Brotherhood, although Tehran denies the meeting. Even in regime strongholds, such as Assad’s hometown of Qardaha, there have been growing skirmishes between groups as the situation has grown fractious.
The dual call for a simultaneous, robust ceasefire and a process of regime transition seems simple and obvious. And while there are many layers of complexity, and a complicated path to align stakeholders to make it happen, it is this dual call that is the only basis for a real solution to Syria. The alternative, a systematic escalation in violence, is no solution at all.