In the face of non-compliance with the Annan Peace Plan, the International Community is reduced to considering two alternatives: regime transition of Al-Assad out of power and convening an international conference on Syria as a means of coordinating and increasing pressure on the Al-Assad regime to fully embrace the Annan Peace Plan.
Anyone who knows a little about Syrian politics knows that Al-Assad will not leave without the onset of a huge civil war that will likely implicate some neighboring countries. This option will bring more uncertainty and because not everyone in Syria wants to end his leadership, a lot of contestation. Critics of this will ask if the situation in Syria could get worse. The answer is yes, it can especially if neighboring countries become embroiled. In my opinion there is very little likelihood of this happening, except if the country’s top military and police leadership turn against Al-Assad. Till now we hear of sporadic defections to the resistance from the country’s strong and powerful military but these are individual decisions of soldiers who perhaps have decided to join the resistance after personal tragedies, but there has not been a single significant “mass” defection reported (a company or a unit of about 150 soldiers). This means that the military and the police are still supporting the Al-Assad regime. Under these circumstances, toppling the regime from outside will be near impossible.
Russia proposed an international conference to coordinate pressure and sanctions against Syria and initially the US rejected this idea without really presenting any good ideas of its own. The next day, the idea of the conference slowly gained support as the total potential of such an event, as a first Contact Group Meeting on Syria, were becoming more defined. So the Conference would bring together all the actors except the US again rejected the participation of Syria and Iran. The meeting wold give a chance to engaged exclusively on Syria and is a good idea given that all relevant actors need to concentrate now making a difference in that context and to the people of Syria.
My criticism and observations concern the construction of such a conference (main and parallel conference forum) and who is invited and included. As a mediation practitioner, I know that if one really want to make a difference that involves buy-in or cooperation of a government, it has to be at the table. Also if there are detractors or spoilers, they also need to be included in some way so that public blaming-and-shaming can take a more concentrated and results-based dialogue. So here are my proposals:
1. Include Syria in the Conference. We are facing a situation where even if we want to transition the regime out of Syria, it will depend on cooperation with Al-Assad and State military and police structures. While some countries and moralists might find it unacceptable to sit and dialogue with Syria’s Al-Assad directly, if you want to help the people of Syria to keep their lives and their country, you will do what is best for them. It is very unimaginable that all the military and police in the country will just lay down arms so Syria needs to be at the table, to make international peace commitments, to recommit to national reconciliation and guarantee a timeline political and social transition within the country, including building up democratic systems, establishing legislation to embed political pluralism and elections.
2. Include Iran in a parallel forum with other countries like India and China that currently constitute Iran’s most significant trading partners. The truth is that support from Iran both politically and financially (weapons are included in this) is perhaps critical for Al-Assad. Iran has not bowed to international pressure through sanctions on the nuclear proliferation issue so it seems doubtful that Iran will bend its current support to Syria because of a few more sanctions. However, the sections have begun to hurt economically and India for instance is paying in Indian Rupees for oil supplies because Iran needs the money and to buy basic food commodities and medicines that India can supply in return. India should also be present to apply pressure on Iran (India should not be given the opportunity to wriggle out of its global commitments and continue to trade with Iran in the face of the Syrian situation). China is part of the international consensus on Syria so they will be able to apply significant pressure on Iran and Syria, to implement the peace agreement.
3. Include other regional countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and secondary countries with economic impact on either Syria or Iran (India). If the conference is to be truly effective, countries that are neighbors to Syria and who for many reasons have been linked to the introversion of the Al-Assad regime and Syria as a whole, should be also involved. The regional dynamics of the Turkey – Saudi Arabia Sunni axis on the evolution of the Syrian situation can be significant, as both or with can contribute to radicalization of internal factions and militants within Syria. Their presence and participation should as much be preventative as constructive in constructing a pressure-plate to box in the Syrian government. India is already addressed in point 3 and there are other countries that I have not identified that could be important like Iraq that is a Shiite-led country that not only shares a border with Syria but also a Baathist heritage and common history. Could be important.
4. Construct the conference as a negotiation on a plan for regularization and opening up Syria. The focus of the conference should not be too narrow or to broad but also have an element of basic agreements and commitments to agree the process to open up Syria to political pluralism and broad-based elections.
Today, we are all Syrian civilians and what is happening there could happen to us here in Canada and the US, where two parties rule. But to stand with the people of Syria, I urge timely action that takes into account the most triggers and levers that can be used. Political blocking of participation by the West is unproductive at this point and not in the interest often Syrian people. This is not a time for grandstanding against Iran but charging them publicly in a public forum for their responsibility to the dead at Houla and Al-Qubyr.
Tags: Al-Assad government, Al-Qubyr, Annan Peace Plan, Houla, India, massacres, middle-east, Options on Syria, regime transition, Russia, sanctions against syria, Security Council, Syria, UN, UN mission in Syria, US foreign Policy