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.
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.
Thus, the Syrian opposition – predominantly Sunni – cannot be expected to rise to power and obtain internal stability without integrating Syria’s minorities into the new political system. In turn, this will require them to shift from armed confrontation to national reconciliation. 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. The Syrian opposition can use its bayonets to change the status quo, but in the end, it will not be able to sit on them and rule – to paraphrase the French diplomat Talleyrand, who navigated through the tumultuous French Revolution.
As for the international community, it needs to think long and hard about “the day after” in Syria. It must now use all the political and diplomatic influence and leverage that it has to urgently push for serious political negotiations among the players. This is both a humanitarian and a strategic interest to relieve suffering and increase the chance of post-conflict reconciliation.
Ideally, this effort would require countries like Russia to give up their support for Assad and persuade him to step down in exchange for guarantees that the political transition will be agreed to by all sides once the dictator is gone.
Countries such as the United States, that support the Syrian opposition through the Syrian National Coalition, should make clear that any assistance will be conditional on the opposition refraining from reprisals and committing to integrate all the different parts of Syrian society into the post-Assad political system.
Unfortunately, a political, inclusive solution to the Syrian conflict seems as needed as it is unlikely, causing one to hope that the warring parties there will be faster learners than in Northern Ireland.
Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group, and author of the forthcoming book, “Armed Political Organizations: from Conflict to Integration” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @benedettabertiw.