The Solution to the Syrian Crisis is Political, Not Military by Lea Khoury

As the crisis in Syria continues to escalate, GJIA offers views of different possible responses to the crisis. Below, Lea Khoury offers her view on how the international community should respond. You can read other perspectives here and here

More than other recent uprisings in the Arab world, the revolution in Syria has taken on increasing significance.  Nineteen months and 32,000 dead after its outbreak, the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad maintains power, although its control has slipped in parts of the country.  As tensions continue to escalate, so does the risk of general spillover effects in this particularly sensitive region.  So far, the international community has failed to take meaningful action to end the crisis.  The main concern of the international community today is that Syria has already entered into a state of civil war and has become so militarized that it seems there is no political space for a peaceful settlement.  Nevertheless, what the country needs is not a military intervention, but a political solution reached through negotiations.

Contrary to the misperceptions spread by supporters of military intervention, such as Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the intervention in Libya cannot be replicated in Syria.  Some military experts have emphasized that a military intervention in Syria, realistically speaking, would not be the straightforward task that it is sometimes portrayed to be.  Syria enjoys a greater military capacity to resist an intervention than Libya.  According to U.S. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Assad’s air defense systems are ‘approximately five times more sophisticated’ than were Gaddafi’s.  They are also placed around densely populated areas, meaning that bombings, whatever their precision, would cause greater civilian casualties.  Syria thus presents a far more serious challenge to an international coalition than did Libya –which also required a seven-month air campaign and caused tens of thousands of casualties.

Consequentially, a military intervention in Syria could have catastrophic results, leading to another indefinite quagmire in the Middle-East that would result in more deaths than would non-intervention.  Even if a military intervention were feasible, Russia and China would block authorization at the U.N. Security Council, and the option of unilateral intervention outside the U.N. legal framework has never really been on the table.  The consensus on Libya was exceptional because despite Algeria’s tacit support, the Arab world had isolated Gaddafi within two months of the beginning of his crackdown and clearly called for a UN-enforced no-fly zone.  Assad, however, still benefits from strong Russian and Iranian support, not to mention that of other allies.

Therefore, the solution to the crisis in Syria cannot and should not be military.  A political settlement has to remain the international community’s priority.  At the Geneva conference in June 2012, the foreign ministers of the five U.N. Security Council permanent members, plus those of Turkey and three Arab League states –Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq- agreed on a first compromise for a political transition process.  While this agreement is not a U.N. resolution but just a communiqué, it provides the best roadmap for peace so far.  The guidelines did not require Assad’s withdrawal from power as a pre-condition to the transition process.  The agreement suggested that the transitional government "could include members of the present government, the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent. "

There is no question that Assad will have to step down sooner or later, but the international community and the Syrian opposition must realize that he will not do so voluntarily unless he is granted some immunity, however unpleasant this option may look.   It is also important to recognize that the current President and his government might have to play a role in the process, in order to facilitate the transition and prevent an Iraq-type scenario from materializing in a post-Assad Syria.  The participation of members of the present government may also reassure minorities of dangers such as ethnic cleansing.  Religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Alawis, Christians, Kurds and Druze, constitute nearly a third of the population and remain skeptical of the revolution.  They do not necessarily support Assad’s policies, but they fear oppression if the Sunni majority were to come into power.  This perceived threat has become especially widespread among minority communities since the military opposition is increasingly getting ‘Islamized’, as seen by the presence of Al-Qaeda fighters among the rebels.  The participation of extremist groups amidst the the newly-born Syrian National Coalition makes it less credible in its capacity to lead on its own a peaceful and democratic transition in case the Assad regime falls.

However, in order to implement such a political solution, the Western powers and their allies must first recognize that neither side will win the war in the short-run, and try to mitigate the conditions that incubate fighting.  For instance, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey must drop their material support for the rebels.  At the same time, the international community should increase diplomatic pressure on Russia, as it retains the most influence on the Assad regime.  International leaders should pursue efforts to convince Putin that sponsoring political negotiations and a transition process in Syria would significantly benefit his reputation.  They would also need to guarantee that a regime change in Syria would not affect Russia’s influence and interests in the area.

As for most civil wars and internal conflicts, the solution to the Syrian crisis is political, not military.  The international community should not assume that it can replicate the success in Libya, and should therefore refrain from military intervention in Syria.  A political transition process is especially important given the ongoing tensions between the minorities and the Sunni majority, in which all parties should have a part in the negotiations.  If the international community wants to avoid further disintegration of the country and the region, it must pursue diplomatic means to encourage a peaceful transition.

Lea Khoury is currently a graduate student at Sciences Po.