Saving Syria – Smart, Not Myopic, International Diplomacy

Syria is now the centerpiece of the Middle East. If Syria overcomes sectarian war and takes constructive steps towards ethno-cultural integration and democratic self-rule, it will change the narrative of the entire region.

Stakes are high, not only for regional players but also for world powers. Many local and international stakeholders in the conflict still remain confrontational and counterproductive.

Syria is not a place for proxy wars. Even if Assad leaves today, this is still a volatile country in the center of the oil rich region. Three million militarily powerful Alawites — Shiite offshoots in a Sunni-majority society — will stop at nothing to survive. After Assad’s war inevitably ends, millions who have suffered under the hands of his Alawite gang will place a price on the heads of all Alawites, no matter whether they are guilty of war crimes or not. Young liberal forces will most likely fracture their tenuous unity with conservative Muslim Brotherhood forces after Assad falls, thus magnifying liberal-orthodox tensions in the region. In addition, two million Kurds will retain their own outside ties as well as their general suspicions of all sides, thus not providing much additional integrative force to the region.

Syria needs a new consensus-building approach to save the region from catastrophic consequences. Careful and synchronised multinational strategies with unified local support are needed to ensure that the fall of the Assad regime proceeds with less turmoil and bloodshed. This needs spirit and commitment resembling no less than the struggle of the Allied Powers during and after the World War II.


Western governments should persuade Russia and China that their multilateral support for an end to the Assad regime is necessary for their own long-term goals. War may bring quick benefits for arms traders, but it is a sinking ship for profits in the long run. Their interests and concerns must be addressed by the Western powers in order to compel them to contribute to peace.

Syria needs visionary moves such as that of Nixon’s reaching out to China in 1972 or that of détente to approach the Soviets in early ’70s. These unprecedented diplomatic approaches, not proxy wars or nuclear posturing, ultimately helped to end the Cold War and brought about victory for America and its Western allies. Similar game-changing international outreach strategies could be undertaken to involve Iran and Hezbollah whose contribution could be critical in the conflict resolution in Syria. Equally critical would be the role of the Gulf states and the Arab League under the leadership of Lakhdar Brahimi.

In retrospect it is important to note that Iran helped America to defeat Taliban forces during the early post-invasion period in Afghanistan, or that it offered an amazingly comprehensive proposal of regional cooperation and peace to America in 2003 that was summarily rejected by the Bush administration. The incalculable cost of these lost opportunities due to the common narratives of saber-rattling should be borne in mind in taking the groundbreaking steps today.

Reconciliation in Syria: Planning ahead of time
For the sake of the greater good there should be general amnesty in the post-Assad period. As historical examples, Prophet Muhammad gave general amnesty after victory in Mecca, and Abraham Lincoln did the same after the American Civil War. These grand and gracious actions helped to integrate the societies faster and bring about stability. For the sake of deterrence, only a handful of top heinous offenders could be brought to justice.

This is a controversial yet critical idea. Bloodshed and violence would continue for a long time if the Alawites created a fortified enclave in Syria against social unification. This would be a recipe for disaster, reminding us of events that took place in the Balkans, such as the autonomous “enclaved” province of Kosovo within Serbia forcefully maintained by Marshal Tito. If Tito had established democracy and tied the six republics via confederacy and impartial rule of law, a horrendous bloodbath could have been avoided. However, that meant relinquishing his own grip on power, so he continued to be an autocrat and sowed the seeds of ethnic cleansing and conflicts among people who lived side by side as neighbours.

In modern times, we also see from the 2003 Iraq War that if general amnesty was given to Baathists — save for the top party officials — we would not have seen a dysfunctional and conflict-torn Iraq for the last nine years. Much of the violence that ripped the country apart emanated from mindless de-Baathification and overnight disbanding of 300,000 members of the Iraqi army. Violence erupted within 72 hours after that and still is continuing. These blunders should not take place in Syria now.

Constructive engagement
The solutions then and the solutions now are the same. Diverse peoples can learn to live side by side, constructively engaging with one another through democratic systems and impartial due processes of law for mutual welfare. After hundreds of years of brutal violence and wars, Europe finally realised that only through these constructive engagements and integrative efforts could a win-win outcome be achieved. It is long overdue that the Middle East and North African region implement these ideals in order to avoid further misery and enormous costs to countless peoples.

(Cross-posted from The Daily Star, August 23, 2012).