With end of Syria war in sight, so must be a postwar plan

The US and other nations have stepped up their military role in Syria as the Assad regime weakens. But they must not repeat the mistake made in Iraq and Afghanistan and hold low expectations for postwar reconstruction. Muslim societies can be democratic.

Free Syrian Army fighters pray ahead of what they said was a offensive by them to take control of Tal Meleh area from forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar al-Assad in Hama countryside May 12.

Syria’s long war is not over yet but the world might want to start planning for it. Here are signs that the end could be nigh:

Despite a reluctance to deploy combat soldiers in Syria, President Obama sent Special Operations forces to the country Friday to kill a top Islamic State leader. Also this month, the US began to train hundreds of Syrian rebels to take on IS – rebels who could also help topple the Assad regime. And Mr. Obama may need to revisit his 2013 threat to strike Syria now that international inspectors have found evidence that the regime kept chemical weapons after claiming to get rid of them.

In addition, Obama backs a new coalition between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar that is preparing a Syrian rebel force – known as the Army of Conquest  – for a major offensive. Last week, the US consulted Russia to seek its assistance in ending the war. And if the US talks with Iran go well in coming weeks, the critical Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar Assad could weaken.

All this raises an obvious question: Who is planning for a post-Assad Syria? Opposing a dictator or ridding Syria of terrorists and chemical weapons carry a moral force of their own. But equally important is taking responsibility for creating a just peace in a post-war Syria. Millions of refugees must be resettled. A new government must be installed, preferably democratic. Massive aid will be needed.

The United States must not repeat the mistake it made in Afghanistan and Iraq after liberating those countries – the mistake of low expectations for Muslim countries with tribal differences in their ability to achieve democratic reform. Inadequate resources and attention were given those two countries during the early years of their recovery, in part because of low hopes for societies seen as too deficient for progress.

US hesitancy to become entangled in the Syrian war is understandable. Simply knowing which rebels are pro-democracy has been difficult enough. And the use of American drones has kept IS in check. But the war itself has left a political vacuum for groups like IS to set up shop. Stopping IS will not be enough. Syria needs a stable government. And with the regime now appearing to wobble, the broad international coalition of countries, led by the US, must also begin to plan for a post-war Syria.

In a few areas liberated by the rebels, attempts have been made to set up civil governance. This is a good sign that Syrians are eager to create a democracy – the same desire that led to the 2011 uprising against Assad. And the coalition of six Arab monarchies known as the Gulf Cooperation Council pledged last week to support post-war reconstruction in Syria.

The US came to realize after many years in Iraq and Afghanistan that it needed to lead the efforts to boost those countries in both aid and arms. It should avoid the same mistake in Syria. But it will take a shift in thinking that Syria is worth the investment. Syrians themselves, along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, must do the most work. But the US, as the security partner of so many Middle East states, has a special role. It must not accept Syria as too flawed to succeed or prone to cycles of violence. Expectations must be raised.

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