What to do When the Syrian Ceasefire Fails
Russia and the West are not just seeking different outcomes, but different types of outcomes in Syria. While the Russian strategy is pragmatic and realistic, there are many pitfalls in the Western one. If the current truce collapses, as is likely, Western policymakers will be left with a few unpalatable options. The heroic diplomacy that led to the current ceasefire is laudable, but once the war resumes, a new approach will be needed.
This week's ceasefire is a welcome respite for the citizens of increasingly besieged Aleppo, but as a war-stopper, it has a high chance of failure. Policymakers are already making backup plans... as well they should.
Why? The nature of the combatants and their backers means that Russia and the West aren't just seeking different outcomes in Syria -they're seeking different types of outcomes.
Internal, identity-based civil wars like Syria's today usually end in one of two ways: one side (usually the government) decisively defeats the other(s), or all sides realize they can't win and seek a settlement out of exhaustion. Moscow seeks the former outcome, Washington the latter.
Russia seeks a decisive victory where the government of Bashar al-Assad either brutally suppresses its foes or negotiates a settlement from a position of such strength that nothing effectively changes. Think Angola, Sri Lanka, or Biafra here. This isn't surprising. Russia has decades-long ties with the Syrian government, giving it someone to fight for, not just against. The West has lacked a unified and viable champion in Syria from the beginning.
By contrast, Western actors are seeking a political transition to a democratic, inclusive government, something akin to what happened at the end of the Lebanon's civil war. This strategy has three serious problems.
First, it's predicated on weakening the regime and forcing it to accept a settlement out of attrition. Apart from the moral implications, this strategy became ineffective when Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah bailed out the regime, giving Assad little reason to negotiate.
Second, and more damningly, the demand for political transition fundamentally ignores the nature of this regime. Assad's government is overwhelmingly controlled by minority groups in Syria who fear what will happen if they lose power. For this reason, they can never accept a transition and elections. Insisting that they do so is akin to asking an entire segment of the population to write its own political suicide note. There is almost no precedent for a minority non-colonial regime surrendering power peacefully, and demanding Assad do so encourages him to fight to the bitter end.
Third, it presumes that a political transition would even be a good thing. This isn't necessarily the case: revolutionary results often beget chaos, as seen in Libya and Iraq. Political transitions often produce ineffective governments incapable of making decisions or controlling militias, as in Lebanon today. Nor are peace deals always peaceful: roughly half lapse back into conflict within five years. This is especially likely in Syria, where Assad's enemies are a disparate lot composed of dozens of political and military groups, often with few bonds beyond a mutual enemy. Major actors like Islamic State and the Jabhat al-Nusra aren't even included in the current ceasefire and wouldn't be a part of a political settlement they would have every incentive to spoil.
If the current truce collapses, as is likely, Western policymakers will be left with a few unpalatable options.
- Continue to seek a political transition that will require a war of attrition that could last for many more years. If Turkey were to become more active or if the next U.S President takes more of a interventionist stance, the likelihood is that in this scenario we will see a growing confrontation between NATO and Russia.
- Stand back while Russia and Iran help Assad retake all of Syria.
Get creative. Half of Syrians have been displaced, and the country may be too broken to be put back together. Balkanization is an outcome some people have advocated. Allowing Iraq and Syria to divide themselves on identity-based lines would change the incentives of the combatants and their backers while isolating Islamic State.
The West is currently stuck indecisively seeking an outcome that will probably fail and has created a needless confrontation with Russia. The heroic diplomacy that led to the current ceasefire is laudable, but once the war resumes, a new approach will be needed.
Joe Geni spent seven years as a journalist covering United Nations Headquarters for Japan's largest newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun. He has a Masters in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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