Over the past year, the situation in Syria has become the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of casualties and more than 8 million people uprooted from their homes. Meanwhile Syria’s economy lies in ruins, with over 45 percent unemployment and a 40 percent fall in GDP since the start of the conflict. Syria’s modest development gains over the past 12 to 15 years have been wiped out, while the country has recorded the largest fall in the Global Peace Index.
Despite the grim picture, recent developments have renewed the possibility of a compromise. The vast majority of opposition forces now appreciate that the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – and other extremist groups have done more harm than good to their cause. At the same time, those entrusted with the difficult task of day-to-day governance in large swaths of newly liberated areas are already negotiating with the Assad regime on a daily basis in order to provide water, electricity, and other basic services to an increasingly demanding population.
Last year also saw the opening of regional diplomatic channels and space for dialogue among key regional actors with a stake in the conflict. In many ways, Syrian and Iranian diplomacy has won the day by showing greater understanding of the situation in terms of the balance of power on the ground and a shrewder understanding of the West’s priorities. Meanwhile, the opposition has woken up to the fact that they are but one small part of a greater regional game linked to Iran, Israel’s security, and regional stability.
Overall, there is now some acceptance both inside and outside Syria that international actors cannot do much to affect outcomes militarily. The time is ripe for a diplomatic approach to seize this window of opportunity.
However, the international community cannot succeed in its efforts by dealing exclusively with a few scattered Syrian elites. The past year has made it clear that the opposition in Syria does not trust its representatives outside the country – figures in Dubai, Doha, London, Paris, and elsewhere seen as living happily abroad with no intention of returning to help rebuild a shattered society and risk their lives in the process. Likewise, trust in the international community has been dashed by the lack of resolve for intervening directly. After interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Mali, many on the streets of Syria now ask: “Why is Syrian blood cheaper?”
Overcoming these doubts requires more investment in dialogue and diplomacy than guns and ammunition. For its part, the international community must directly engage with opposition groups inside Syria, rather than a few unrepresentative proxies. Despite the risks of uncertainty and shifting alliances, we can, and indeed must, distinguish between extremist groups such as ISIS and those hardliners who are still willing to put Syria’s future first and foremost, engaging the broadest possible coalition. Piecemeal negotiations will only further fragment an already-divided opposition.
There is much work to be done. Syria’s myriad opposition groups (now numbering more than 1,000) need diplomatic and material support to start a dialogue among themselves and with the internationally recognized opposition outside of Syria. Rather than rushing to strike bargains and push for elections, the international community should encourage a more collaborative and locally rooted opposition leadership. The opposition needs leaders who can command moral authority within Syria while articulating a unified opposition agenda to the rest of the world.
These leaders, both within Syria and without, must work together to make use of this window of opportunity. They need to articulate a common stand against the Assad regime, addressing questions of political representation, the redistribution of wealth, and the mechanics of ruling in the new regime. Whether or not sharia forms the basis of Syrian law is simply not a priority at this stage.
The opposition needs a set of serious but pragmatic objectives to take back the diplomatic initiative, an agenda that the Assad regime can accept as a basis for negotiations. It will take direct, constructive engagement with those fighting, dying, and surviving inside Syria to make this a reality.
Sultan Barakat is a visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution and the founding director of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York in York, England.