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The way forward in Syria after Bashar al-Assad

Yesterday's strategic bomb attack in Damascus shows it's not too soon to consider the way forward in Syria after the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Lessons from other countries teach that Syria and the international community will have to pull together for a successful transition.

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From outsiders, Syria will need:

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  •  Military support to seal off and ultimately depose of chemical weapons, and also the integration and adaptation of the armed forces under civilian command.
  •  A small, atypical working group comprising political and development advisers from the US, the former colonial powers Britain and/or France, Russia, and neighboring Turkey and Iran. As improbable as such a coalition seems, unless interests are harmonized – or at least checked – across the range of diverse and adversarial outside actors with deep historical ties to Syria, there will be no effective way to curtail counterproductive and possibly destabilizing external meddling.
  •  Repeal of sanctions and economic reengagement linked to democratic reforms. Humanitarian relief will be urgent across the most heavily war-affected cities and regions of Syria. In a country of negative economic growth and high unemployment (-2 percent and 12.3 percent respectively) and a burgeoning youth bubble, jumpstarting the economy will be essential to providing an interim government with breathing room.
  • A carrot from Israel. The wider potential good of a democratic Syria is regional realignment – specifically, an end to Damascus’s violent interference in Lebanon and partnership with Iran in state-sponsored terrorism. Both of these would be valuable and hitherto unimaginable gains for Israel. A good-will gesture, such as offering to negotiate a solution to the Golan Heights with a peaceful, elected government, would give impetus to Syrian reform.
  •  A long-term assistance strategy. The South African political scientist Greg Mills has argued that a country’s recovery is likely to be at least as long as its period of decline. As experience shows in Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere, societies emerging from prolonged tyranny struggle against their own lack of practical democratic experience. The standard election-centered peacekeeping model of the past two decades often failed to establish lasting new norms of governance and civic engagement.

While it will be essential to forge an interim national unity government as quickly as possible following the Assad regime, the international community should support a textured approach in helping to building the mechanics of democracy. It should start with assisting in local and then provincial elections, as a means of encouraging popular participation in government and forging credibility of elected leaders.

In the ongoing transformation of the Middle East, Syria is the big domino. Get it right there, and democracy will gradually become the new regional norm. Success depends on aligning long-term domestic and international interests.
Kurt Shillinger was a national political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and Africa Correspondent for The Boston Globe. He conducted political research in Syria in the mid-2000s.


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