Photo: Syrian Refugee's Camp
A flurry of recent bilateral and multilateral discussions involving Americans, Russians, Saudis, and others have provoked speculation that there may be a renewed push for negotiations to end the conflict in Syria. I can only hope the speculation is not mere wishful thinking, because it should have been clear from the beginning that a negotiated solution is the only way to end this long war.
From the very start, it should have been clear that the trajectory of the conflict was shaped by constants that could not be ignored. Years later, with over one-quarter million dead and one-half of the country's population displaced or forced into exile, the Syrian war has become more tragic and vastly more complex than anyone could have imagined at its beginning—but the constants remain.
First and foremost, it was clear that a significant group of Syrians wanted the regime to go. For them, the ruling group didn't just lose legitimacy since they never viewed it as legitimate. When demonstrators were met with deadly force, when neighborhoods were devastated by barrel bombs, or when civilians were killed with chemical weapons, rage at the regime only grew.
At the same time, it is equally important to acknowledge that a substantial number of Syrians find security in the regime. Many are afraid of change and especially fearful of the kind of change the opposition will bring. Whether religious minorities or secular urbanites, these Syrians view the religiously motivated "revolutionaries" as an existential threat to what being "Syrian" means to them or to the very survival of their communities.
These Syrians have never had confidence in the external opposition. And with al Qaida and its offshoot, Daish, playing an increasingly dominant role on the ground, these Syrians have turned to the regime to defend them, despite their disdain for its policies.
Also clear from the outset was that what happened in Syria would be affected by the competing powers in the region, and would, in turn, have a dramatic impact on the immediate neighborhood. For Iran, Syria was a key ally and client they could ill-afford to lose. For Russia, Syria was a strategic asset that they were unwilling to surrender. Turkey saw unfolding events in Syria as a threat to its security and its internal politics. For vulnerable Jordan and Lebanon, events in Syria have always posed a challenge to their stability. And for the Gulf Arabs, Iran's expanding regional role has been a threat that they have felt a need to confront.
Finally, given the recent experiences of sectarian conflict in Lebanon and Iraq, it should have been clear from the beginning that, if left unchecked, the conflict in Syria would only expand; that it would take on an increasingly sectarian nature, with internal groupings embracing or being embraced by external powers; and that given the regional balance of power, no side would or could win a decisive victory. In the parlance of Lebanon's long civil war, there would be "no victor and no vanquished" in Syria.
Four and one half years into this nightmare, these constants still define the lay of the land. I remember back when the war's death toll was 3,000, I was in a debate with a group of Syrians who were telling me "if only the US would give more weapons" the conflict would end. I argued back that such a view ignored all of the other constants at play. Because there were other parties with interests in Syria, more weapons for the opposition would only result in increased Iranian and even Russian support for the regime. I argued that the assumption that one side could win was, in fact, chasing a fool's errand and that if steps were not taken to reach a negotiated solution, however imperfect, we would be looking at 30,000 dead or some day as many as 300,000.
It gives me no satisfaction that we are reaching that number and still the conflict rages on. The bloody hands of the regime are now bloodier and more despised. The opposition remains fragmented and dysfunctional, and, in too many places, dominated by extremist factions who have committed horrific crimes. And both sides have attracted their share of foreign fighters. The neighboring countries have been overwhelmed by refugees, with their capacity and internal stability stretched to the breaking point. And Syria's people are dispersed, exhausted, and still dying at the hands of the regime and the extremists.
In the wake of the P5+1 deal with Iran, the fear of the Gulf States is that Iran will now be further emboldened to invest more heavily in support of their client in Damascus. This, in turn, will only prompt them to find ways to counter Iran in Syria. For its part, Turkey has now taken military action in Syria to counter both ISIS and Kurdish separatists. All of this will only pour more fuel on the raging fire.
The solution today is the same as it was four years ago. There must be a negotiated settlement. This will require leadership from the US and Russia. And it will require Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran to support a political process that will help end the fighting.
There appears to be some consensus today that the structures of Syrian state must not be allowed to collapse—that elements of the regime must remain intact so as to avoid the disaster that befell Libya and Iraq. There is also a consensus that ISIS and al Qaida must be defeated.
These goals can be accommodated by the Geneva process that was once supported by all the relevant parties. That process envisioned a negotiated solution between the regime and the moderate opposition, allowing for a transitional phase during which a new Syrian government would be formed. The effort collapsed because the insistence of the regime that Bashar al Assad must remain head of state was met by the insistence of the opposition that al Assad must leave before negotiations could even begin.
Here is where the US, Russia and other countries must apply the pressure needed to temper demands of all sides helping them find the way forward. Unrealistic preconditions will have to be dropped and the transitional period will have to be clearly defined. As was the case at the end of Lebanon's long war, a negotiated outcome won't be perfect, nor will it be absolutely just. But it will help end the bloodshed, create a unified Syrian force to help defeat the extremists, and provide the opportunity for many Syrians to return to their homes and begin to reconstruct their shattered lives and communities.
Wounds won't heal quickly and Syria's polity will remain fractured for the foreseeable future. But the transition must be defined clearly enough to give all sides the assurances they will need to know that Bashar will leave, the state structures will remain intact, local councils will be respected, militias will be "decommissioned" and/or incorporated into the national army, and a representative form of governance will be established to give all of Syria's people a stake in their collective future.
It won't be easy to defeat the extremists, and it won't be easy to convince bring the gang in power to surrender their absolute hold on power. But this, not fanning the flames of conflict, must be the focus of international pressure if Syria and Syrians are to find a way out of this horrible long war.