Ottawa- The latest move by President Obama to arm Syrian rebel groups is a clear indication that his administration is wandering aimlessly in the dark when it comes to the Syrian crisis. But as most political analysts can tell you, arming rebels in these types of conflicts is a doubled-edged sword.
One might then ask, is there an alternative to arming the rebels, or should the US just stand idly by and do nothing while thousands of innocent people are killed every day in this conflict? Framing the questions in this black-and-white fashion, either support for Assad or for the Syrian rebels, is not only misleading but unproductive. There is a third-way solution to the Syrian crisis which, at first glance, might appear so simple that it gets overlooked. But, before explaining this solution, let us look at the two existing scenarios and their shortcomings.
In the first scenario, the US and its allies do nothing. The expected result is that – with the help of Russia and Iran – Assad wins and remains in power. In this scenario, we can expect more innocent people to die in the process, but eventually he will get his strong-hold back on the country. Meanwhile, the “Syrian rebels” will not disappear completely, although they will be weakened. As they retain weapons, networks and know-how, they will transform into invisible terrorist/jihadist cells, which will become a constant threat to the security of Syria and its neighbouring countries including Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. This will also result in increasing Russian’s and Iran’s influence in Syria and the whole region since they will be seen as the successful allies in this conflict.
In the second scenario, the US and its allies get involved militarily (either by providing weapons to the Syrian rebels, through NATO and the use of drones, and/or through imposing a no-fly zone). Let us assume that this is what it takes for Assad to lose and for the rebels to win the battle (otherwise we are back at the first scenario). What next? Most likely, Russia and Iran will be dissatisfied with the results and will continue to arm the Assad regime in order to keep their influence in this strategic area (Russia-for its naval base in the Mediterranean; Iran-for its Shiite Crescent plans in the region). This would eventually – after a protracted bloody sectarian war and ethnic cleansing – lead to the division of Syria into three major areas (the Alawites ruling the coastal area, the Sunni rebels leading the middle of Syria, and the Kurds leading the northern part of Syria). Most probably the Druze area in Syria will be joined with the Druze area in Israel since it’s a small minority that has no other place in this division. The outcomes of this scenario will cause huge regional problems for Turkey at two fronts: first, Turkey’s Iskenderun District, with its Alawite majority who would like to be reunited with their Alawite counterparts in Syria; second, the Turkish Kurdistan region, which will aspire for its independence like the Kurdish region in Syria.
In both cases – whether Assad wins or loses the fight – there will be no democracy, freedom, or economic development for the people. That is because, if the rebels win this war, they are not prepared for modern state building (just like the Muslim Brotherhood are not ready for it in Egypt). In reality, those who eat the raw hearts of their dead enemies after they kill them are not going to be a beacon of freedom and democracy for their fellow citizens. Worse than that, if the rebels do not win they will have acquired enough weapons during their fights to create a terrorist organization that will be a threat not only to Syrian security but also its neighbouring countries for years to come. Have we really learned nothing from Afghanistan?
So, if that is what we get should Assad remain and the rebels lose or vice versa, what, then, is the solution to this dilemma? I am proposing here a third-way, a middle ground if I may call it that. First, the important thing to realize is that Russia and Iran are separable on the Syria issues because, although their interests are similar, their goals are not. Iran wants to have a Shiite influence in the region, while Russia wants a strategic position on the Mediterranean. The second most important thing to understand is that Russia holds the key to solving the Syrian crisis and not Iran. With that in mind there are several steps that need to be taken.
First of all, the US and its allies must work together with Russia to assure them of their strategic presence in the Mediterranean. Russia will not accept any solution to Syria that does not have that in the equation. Once Russia is on board with the US, the two should look for a viable alternative to President Assad from within the Sunni/majority. At this point, and after all this bloodshed, a dialogue with President Assad (or an Alawite minority control of the Sunni majority) is no longer acceptable under any circumstance.
Since the opposition abroad and in Syria cannot agree on the next person to lead after Assad, the US and Russia need to come up with a viable solution to help the opposition to reach an agreement. The best alternative to Assad would be chosen from within the high military ranks, but with a clean record (meaning no links to Al-Qaeda or targeting of innocent civilians during this conflict). That person must have unquestionable strong leadership qualities that can bring security and stability to the country and its neighbours as soon as possible, as well as security to all the different sects and ethnic minorities in Syria. This leader should be nominated to lead an interim-government of two years, during which all the elements of state reform are to be addressed (including Parliament, constitution, presidency, democratic elections, economic reforms, state building, return of refugees, etc.). Countries with renowned reputation in peace building and humanitarian aid, such as Canada, can play a leading role in shaping that critical period.
During this interim-government a national dialogue is to take place between the different groups in society in order to reach a national solution out of the impasse. Reconciliation and conflict resolution efforts must be at the top of the agenda of the interim-government, because only through gradual and focused reforms can Syria come out of this crisis in one piece. Otherwise, we are going to witness dark days in the Middle East where terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and the refugee crisis grow bigger than anything we have seen to date. The West would be foolish to think that what happens in Syria remains in Syria.