Though Syria’s civil war rages on, Western leaders may have the power to help end the bloody conflict. And it’s not by arming the rebels.
Instead, Western countries – in cooperation with regional powers like the Arab League – should work to offer meaningful security reassurances to the minorities now supporting the Assad regime. This will undermine Bashar al-Assad’s base, move the country toward a political resolution to the conflict, and help ensure an inclusive post-Assad society. Without safety guarantees, Syria’s minorities are unlikely to shift support away from Mr. Assad. The promise of an international peacekeeping force, possibly headed by NATO and backed by the Arab League, could achieve that goal.
When Syria’s conflict began, it looked political: A repressive regime was fighting to preserve its power and privileges. The opposition was fighting to end them. As 2012 wore on, however, the conflict looked increasingly sectarian: Communities of ordinary Alawites were targeted by Sunni Arab rebels, and a number of Alawite, Christian, and other minority-based militias started supporting the Alawite-based regime.
However, the main reason Syria’s minorities tend to support the regime is not their loyalty to Assad or hatred of Sunnis but their legitimate fear of the alternative. This is not surprising, given the historical discrimination and ostracism of Alawites under Sunni regimes before a 1970 coup brought Assad’s father to power, and the ruthlessness and sectarian tendencies displayed by Sunni rebels.
Of course, the United States and leading European governments are aware of this concern, and have long pushed the Syrian opposition to give meaningful assurances to the Alawites and Christians. The western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has promised full equality to minorities in a future Syria. This has been applauded by Western leaders, who are eager to avoid a repetition of the sectarianism that raged in Iraq from 2003-2006.
Despite its promises, however, the SNC maintains that regime loyalists are to be purged, the Assad security forces dismantled, and the 2.5 million-member Baath party (of which Assad is head) dissolved. Such an agenda, along with the SNC’s lack of legitimacy within Syria and dominance by the Muslim Brotherhood rather than secular groups, undermine the credibility of the security guarantees it promises.
As a result, Christians and Alawites fear that in a post-Assad political order they will be objects of bloody revenge and political marginalization. Herein lies one of the main reasons for the prolonged and bloody character of Syria’s Arab Spring.
To pull away Assad’s support base will therefore demand more tangible reassurances to the minorities in Syria. These are to be granted by the Syrian opposition to be sure, but they must be backed by Western powers. The US and Europe should offer the minorities a robust security guarantee in the form of an international peacekeeping force.
The current Western course of unconditionally supporting the rebels and hoping they will respect the rules of democracy will not alleviate the minorities’ fears. Instead it may push them into a corner where they will use any means necessary, including perhaps chemical weapons, in order to survive.
An effort to guarantee the safety of Syria’s minorities might even be supported by Iran, which along with Russia is the Assad regime’s main external backer. After all, Iran would presumably prefer to have the Alawites protected and participating in Syrian politics than to have a Sunni sectarian regime backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. If Iran can be persuaded to back a peace agreement, it can pressure Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which is currently fighting for the Syrian government, to do the same.
In practice, it will be no easy sail to guarantee the safety of minorities in Syria. Obstacles include the expected collapse of state institutions, the militarization and radicalization of the Syrian opposition, and the meddling role of regional powers and neighbors. Lebanon’s bloody civil war in the 1970s-80s and the violence following withdrawal of the multinational force there provide a chilling reminder of the failures of international peacekeeping. Yet lessons from Bosnia and Kosovo show that peacekeeping forces can also be effective.
The question is: Do international leaders, particularly those in the West, have the stomach for another such mission in the Middle East? Let’s hope so. For the sake of peace in Syria and regional stability, leaders need to find the courage and the political agreement to implement this peacekeeping mission.
Thorsten Janus is associate professor of economics at the University of Wyoming. He focuses on conflict and governance in developing countries. Helle Malmvig is senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. Her expertise is in international politics and security in the Middle East and North Africa.