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In Syria, the only way out is a political deal

As in Northern Ireland, no matter how much the warring sides in Syria struggle for a battlefield win, fighting is unlikely to bring either side a real victory. The main parties need to sit down and negotiate a mutually agreed political transition and power-sharing plan for afterward.

By Benedetta Berti / April 4, 2013

Free Syrian Army fighters talk as they carry their weapons in Deir al-Zor April 3. Op-ed contributor Benedetta Berti writes: 'To prevent the revolutionary war from becoming a sectarian war between different ethic and religious groups, as well as to save the country from breaking up, there needs to be a negotiated political transition.'

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters


Tel Aviv

The uprising in Syria started as a peaceful protest two years ago, but the longer the conflict continues in its violent form, the more intractable it becomes. Indeed, no matter how much the warring sides may struggle for a battlefield win, using force is unlikely to bring either side victory.

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For any military victory to be both significant and sustainable, it would have to allow the winning side to lay down its weapons and begin rebuilding the country. At the very minimum, such a victory would need to prevent the break-down of the country, to end the bloodshed, and to restore some measure of internal stability and governability.

But to achieve these objectives, the main parties need to sit down and negotiate a mutually agreed political transition and to devise a future system of governing based on a power-sharing formula. The parameters of the deal that will keep the country together and prevent the recurrence of internal fighting are already known, and cannot be improved by military gains.

It’s helpful here to recall the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the longstanding conflict in Northern Ireland. Seamus Mallon, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland after the accord was reached, famously called the agreement “Sunningdale for slow learners.” He was referring to a similar agreement signed 25 years earlier in Sunningdale, England. That agreement broke down, yet all the violence that ensued in the following years did not lead to any substantial change in the parameters of the cross-community political deal.

In Syria, even if the opposition forces manage to “remove” President Bashar al-Assad from the scene, there is no guarantee that this will end hostilities. The upper-echelons of Mr. Assad’s regime, fearing their persecution, would likely stay on and fight, prolonging the war and risking the de facto split of the country. Hence, the paradox of the Syrian conflict is that military gains on the ground are not necessarily translatable to the political table.

And even if the opposition manages to decisively defeat Assad and his regime on the battlefield (and that will be nearly impossible without significant outside help), it is extremely unlikely that the opposition would be able to restore calm and stability without striking a deal with both the remnants of the ancién regime and the Alawite community it claims to represent.

The sectarian nature that the conflict has acquired makes this even more true. In its early days, the anti-Assad protests did not have a markedly sectarian quality. But the dynamics on the ground have subsequently shifted, thanks partly to Assad’s strategy of “divide and rule” that also portrays his regime as the champion of Syria’s minorities.


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