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.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Syria's new defense minister, left, is sworn in before Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, right, July 19. A bomb attack in Damascus yesterday killed three senior military officials. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes:'Conflicts in Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere illustrate that by the time the battle reaches the capital, the night is far spent.'

In light of yesterday’s bomb attack in Damascus that killed three key officials in the regime of Bashar al-Assad, it’s not too early to consider the way forward in a post-Assad Syria.

Conflicts in Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere illustrate that by the time the battle reaches the capital, the night is far spent. Even as the UN Security Council again split on Syria, with Russia and China vetoing sanctions today, international leaders were already looking beyond the final collapse of the 42-year-reign of the House of Assad. British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday called again on Mr. Assad to step down, while President Obama urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his Syrian ally.

A post-Assad peace and reconstruction framework would require a significant departure from business as usual both within Syria and in the way that the world interacts with this strategically placed country.

Examples in other countries show that a transition will be greatly aided if Syrians can:

First, be inclusive. As the South African transition in the early 1990s illustrated, bringing all parties to the table is essential. Both Iraq and the protracted peace process in Burundi – in the volatile Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa – underscored the perils of exclusion.

Syria is emerging from four decades of brutal minority rule. The society is fragmented into nearly four dozen ethnic groups and a plethora of competing political groups. Without meaningful participation from, say, Assad’s Baathists or the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, in transitional and constitutional negotiations, building social and political unity will prove frustrating, if not impossible. Leaving these groups out could also provoke more violence.

Second, integrate the rebel forces and national Army under civilian authority. In effect, the many and continuous defections of high-ranking Syrian military officials and rank-and-file soldiers have already set this process in motion.

Security is a precondition to transformation and development. In Syria’s context, that means protecting borders, safeguarding minorities, and sealing off chemical weapons estimated to be cached in 45 different locations throughout the country. The credibility of the armed forces after Assad will depend on unifying previous belligerents and on joint leadership committed to an interim national unity government.

Third, protect, encourage, and engage civil society. In the brief sunlight period following Bashar al-Assad’s ascent to power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, cafes buzzed with vibrant political and social debate amid expectation of change.

Syrians are a vital, engaged, intellectual people. Even in the darkest periods of the 42-year reign of the Assads, in a police state as invasive as the erstwhile East Germany, passionate debate persisted underground. A thriving civil society – comprising a free press; nongovernmental health, education, and development organizations; returning intellectuals from the diaspora, and unrestricted universities and students movements – is essential for reconstruction.

Fourth, draw on experience from other post-conflict societies – in particularly South Africa, Rwanda, Mozambique, Bosnia, and Iraq, where there are deep wells of human talent and diverse models of reconciliation.

Given Syria’s geopolitical context, set at the crossroads of a region undergoing tremendous upheaval and fragile democratization, transition in Syria will be impossible without constructive international support. While the future of Syria must be in the hands of its people, the end of the Assad era, however it comes, will require resetting the way in which the world engages with the country.

From outsiders, Syria will need:

  •  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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