Much of the latest analysis of the ongoing crisis in Syria focuses on securing the Assad regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons. In particular, how to keep them out of the hands of groups like the Nusra Front. While that is critical, the more difficult, and no less important, consideration for policymakers should be preparing a real strategy for a post-Assad transition. It’s in U.S.interest to see the creation of a free and stable Syria that promotes regional security. But the time to put the pieces in place that can enable that is not the day after Assad falls. The time is now.
Post-Assad Syria will be messy and awash with weapons. Those involved in the transition should learn the lessons of de-Baathification–the U.S.-led process in Iraq that disassembled all institutions of Saddam Hussein’s regime, creating a destabilizing vacuum. In Syria, maintaining as much continuity of key institutions —especially within the military and security apparatus—will be critical to avoiding a disaster. Meanwhile, the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of the Syrian opposition, will not be equipped to effectively manage reconstruction and the distribution of aid in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s downfall. That is why the new government should invite an international stabilization force into the country with a temporary mandate of peace enforcement.
Frederic Hof, Special Advisor for Transition in Syria, suggests that such a force would “protect vulnerable populations, expedite the delivery of humanitarian assistance, provide law and order and suppress, with deadly force, extremists and stay-behind regime elements.” It would also be able to minimize the bloodletting of Alawites and regime collaborators. More importantly, it would help maintain stability on the ground, which would allow the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) to undertake the important work of establishing political and governing institutions and crafting a real time-horizon for the implementation of constitutional and parliamentary processes. However, as Ambassador Hof admits, it is not intuitively clear under which auspices this force would be formed, who would contribute troops, and from where the funding would come. These are conversations that need to occur now. If serious preparations do not begin until Assad falls, it will be impossible to respond quickly enough to achieve the goal of stabilization.
The recent experiences in North Africa make clear that political processes and security are not sufficient to ensure a successful transition. Reconstruction, political transition, and humanitarian aid are all crucial, but costly endeavors. Unfortunately, the international community has not yet come to terms with how this work will be funded. Yaser Tabbara, a Syrian-American member of the opposition, explains that the SOC has conducted studies that reveal the “cost of the management of the liberated areas” to be “close to the neighborhood of $500 million a month”. The largest donation thus far has been a commitment from Saudi Arabia of $100 million.
But even Tabbara’s estimates are woefully low. In reality, a successful Syrian transition will cost billions of dollars. If the United States and the international community wish to see the formation of a democratic, stable, and secure country, they need to plan now for funding the transition. Ambassador Hof has called upon Friends of Syria, the group of over 100 countries supporting the opposition, to act immediately to create an interim reconstruction fund. “It could take The World Bank and other international financial institutions months to do needs assessments, organize pledging sessions, and the rest,” he says. The piecemeal and insufficient funding of transitions in Libya,Egypt, and Tunisia are prime examples of the problems presented by financial support policies that are slapped together after the fact.
The Deauville Partnership, an international framework to coordinate aid to the transition countries, was created in May 2011 and involves the U.S., the E.U., and key Gulf States. This partnership serves a laudable coordination function and has mobilized billions of dollars worth of support, but simply rolling Syriainto that framework at this stage is probably a bad idea. Not only is the Deauville money already spoken for, but bureaucratic constraints have prevented much of it from actually flowing to the intended countries, even long after autocratic governments were toppled. A report by The Atlantic Council concludes that “a clear accounting of exactly what has been transferred to partnership countries is difficult to ascertain, particularly since there is a tendency to double-count funding or re-package initiatives under the Deauville banner that were already in the works.”
Another problem with just adding Syria to the Deauvillewait-list is that the funding is conditioned upon moving toward democratization objectives and economic reform. Those are important considerations for Libya,Egypt, and Tunisia, which are well into their transitions. While Syria will hopefully be a good candidate for that process before too long,Damascus will need large amounts of funding immediately to simply avert a humanitarian disaster. Right now, the country faces a real possibility that Assad’s fall will create tens of thousands of refugees, destabilize the region, and create a comfortable home for dangerous extremist groups. The international community cannot afford to wait for a perfectly democratic government or constitution in the days, weeks, and months that will follow the ouster of the regime.
While it is impossible to know exactly when or how the Assad regime will collapse, it now appears inevitable that it will. When that occurs, the United States and the international community need to be prepared to answer the call for real assistance. The institutions and tools that everyone knows will be needed must be planned for now. There are fighters outside Aleppo and Damascus giving their lives each day in a grueling battle for a free Syria. Those wishing to support them need to make sure that the tools to build that new country will be ready when those brave revolutionaries call for them.