A policy that returns Syria to how it was in 2011 will inevitably collapse when too many have lost too much
Jimmy Carter was wrong. For any peace to hold in Syria, there must be real justice
As the Syrian conflict takes on a depressingly inevitable march towards some kind of denouement, western policy analysts have been wrestling with how to retain a measure of influence over the regime in Damascus.
The latest salvo in this argument came last week when the former US president Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Centre has spent years involved in the arguments around the Syrian war, argued that the US stipulation that Bashar Al Assad should leave power should be abandoned.
Instead, he wrote, the West should re-engage with the regime, re-open embassies, “temper” expectations of democratic change and, in return, Damascus would “be required” to enact “moderate”, although unspecified, reforms.
The West, he said, should also lift sanctions and contribute to reconstruction.
Mr Carter is not the only person to push this narrative. Accepting the end of the war and re-engaging with Damascus forms what might be called the “engagement” camp of western policy analysis.
The only problem is that the extent of engagement suggested would not bring about the “ugly”, imperfect peace imagined – it would merely set the stage for a further conflict in the future.
The engagement camp can be contrasted with the alternative disengagement policy, which is that the US should simply pull back and leave Syria to its own devices. This policy is already underway.
Two weeks ago, the Trump administration pulled out of plans to offer $230 million to fund reconstruction in the areas where it has fought ISIS, mainly in the east and north-east of the country.
Now the US has said there will be no reconstruction money until the Geneva peace process moves forward.
As that process has been stalled for months and has been overtaken by Russia’s Astana process, it is possible there will be no reconstruction funds and no real political involvement in Syria for years.
It is this disconnection that the engagement camp wants to overturn.
The concern is that disengagement will have one of two results, both harmful to US interests in the region.
It could hand influence in Syria to a coalition of Russia, Iran, Turkey and, perhaps in time, China. Or Syria, if unable to rebuild its society and economy, could simply sink under the weight of sanctions, making its unemployed men susceptible to extremist ideas.
If only some reconstruction occurs, and in a way that excludes parts of Syrian society, both of these might be outcomes.
The problem for the West is that while disengagement would mean giving up on any western influence in Syria, engagement in the form of re-establishing diplomatic contacts and offering reconstruction funds would hand the Assad regime most of want it wants, without gaining much in return.
Far better would be a process of selective engagement, in order to maximise what leverage can be salvaged. Because there are still things that the West can do, on a limited budget, that would allow it some leverage.
The first is to recognise its own limitations. For all the talk of “requiring reform”, there is little the West can do to force the regime to the negotiating table and nothing it is willing to do to stop the regime retaking the majority of Syrian territory.
Armed regime change is coming to an end. But that does not mean the Syrian revolution is finished.
The West, with the help of Middle Eastern allies, can help the opposition form a coherent road map for the future.
The Geneva process has been hampered by the regime’s red lines, which has made it impossible for the different rebel factions to find common ground. But a longer process of political support, perhaps in Turkey, where so many of the opposition are based, would allow the opposition to create a cohesive policy platform, one that could present a real alternative.
The second policy should be for the West to increase its leverage on Mr Al Assad by reducing his leverage on it.
Remarkably, the word “refugees” was absent from Mr Carter’s article in the New York Times but it remains the most essential part of the Syrian story.
Six million Syrian refugees are displaced outside the country, the overwhelming majority in three countries – Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Yet funds promised to these countries to help them deal with the crisis have not been forthcoming.
A deal signed between the European Union and Turkey two years ago agreed $7 billion in aid but only half of this has been paid.
That stress on countries in the region is leverage for the regime, because it knows it has the pressure points of further waves of migration or long, complicated delays in returning the refugees.
Ultimately, simply capitulating to the regime, mainly to create an appearance of American relevance, is not genuine justice. A policy that returns Syria to how it was in 2011 before the outbreak of war will inevitably collapse. Too many have lost too much.
For any peace to hold, even if it means the regime remaining in power, there must be a real effort at justice.
For a start, there must be real information about what happened to the tens of thousands of the vanished; a dignified resettlement of refugees, even if that takes place outside the country; and the restitution of property to those who fled the regime and other armed groups.
Without that, any peace would be temporary and illusory.
The level of coercion and violence necessary to keep a lid on that level of dissent would practically guarantee another popular explosion.
Mr Carter is not wrong that peace, even an imperfect one, is better than an endless war. Many Syrians would agree.
But peace without justice is precisely the recipe for a neverending war.
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