x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Outside powers must not impose solutions on Syrians

World powers appear to think that if some opposition groups agree with the Syrian regime on a formula, they can then impose the solution on the rest of Syria. But the time for such thinking is long gone.

As US officials deliberate this week on whether to arm the Syrian rebels, they should remember one point: It will be easier to impose a solution on the regime than on the people.

Leaks from meetings in Geneva last week suggested that representatives from Russia and western countries were focusing on handpicking opposition figures to lead the planned negotiations with the regime. Critical issues such as the future of the security forces, whose brutality sparked the revolt in the first place, were hardly discussed. The world's great powers appear to think that if some opposition groups agree with the regime on a formula, they can then impose the solution on the rest of Syria. But the time for such thinking is long gone.

Neither those in charge of the regime nor the rebels across Syria are interested in compromise. And "victory" by one side or the other will not end the violence.

Consider the context. The government controls hardly any of the country's eastern region. The north, from Idlib to the countryside around Aleppo, is in the hands of the rebels. The regime is either weak or embattled everywhere else, except in Damascus and Suwaida in the south and in the coastal region in the west. Even in those areas, especially the coastal region where there is a strong rebel presence, the regime is not secure.

The point is that extending the reach of state agencies back across the entire country will require major, sustainable military ground operations - in effect an invasion.

Any solution or process that can end the violence must be acceptable to the people. Contrary to some media reports, the rebels on the ground have the resilience and determination to continue fighting.

Another issue to be considered is the future of state institutions. The security services and the army, in particular, cannot function in the same way they did in the past. Paradoxically, those eager to preserve these coercive institutions need to start pinning their hopes on the rebel forces, not the regime. The opposition political bodies have made it clear that they would preserve the state structure, including the army and security services, although their leadership will of course be changed.

Bashar Al Assad's loyalists who control the country's institutions are mainly Alawites - as part of a religious minority associated with the regime, their leadership of these agencies cannot be sustained. Additionally, rebels and residents have established fledgling institutions across the country; these local councils and law-and-order groups can be integrated into the state to maintain order in their areas. The model that appears to be acceptable to many is decentralised governance, in which these local groupings will be key players.

Concerns such as extremism, and the rebels' understanding of world power dynamics, can be addressed if outside powers work closely with the rebels. My conversations with numerous opposition figures, young and old, reveal that the Syrian opposition has a genuine interest in peace - not because it feels Syria is too weak to wage wars or threaten its neighbours but because people recognise that the optimal model for a future Syria is internal development, not foreign adventures. Two rebel leaders who fight close to the Israeli borders, for example, told Al Jazeera news last week that they are committed to international agreements and have no intention of "crossing any red lines".

The rebels have also shown a sense of responsibility in cases that involve mob justice. In Aleppo this week an unknown armed group killed a 14-year-old boy, allegedly for making "blasphemous" comments; the death has been condemned by the city council. The council said anyone accused of blasphemy cannot be killed but should be referred to legal specialists; the council has said previously that Islamic law is suspended in wartime.

Various rebel groups have also condemned Jabhat Al Nusra's links to Al Qaeda.

Ironically, the regime has in many ways morphed into a jihad-normalising force: In March its mufti issued a fatwa calling on people to wage jihad against the rebels. Regime soldiers raise black banners and shout 7th-century slogans after they take an area. And foreign jihadists are flowing into Syria to fight alongside Bashar Al Assad. If the regime wins - and for it "winning" means surviving in some form - it will establish loyal militias to consolidate its grip.

When Mr Al Assad told the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar last month that he intends to turn Syria "into a nation of resistance like Hizbollah for the sake of Syria and future generations", he was not bluffing.

The claims that the regime is secular and the rebels are fanatics can confuse people. The Sharia law that some rebel groups call for has always been part of the country's legal code. Indeed, Sharia law is implemented in Syria as in most Arab countries but this is deliberately shunned by both Arab regimes and their Islamist opponents to suit each side's agenda. Groups that want to apply rigid Sharia laws in Syria are in the minority.

Despite the scale of violence on the part of the regime, Syrians still hope they can build a better Syria. They are determined to build a country that respects human dignity and peace. The Assad regime underestimated their determination. The world must not.

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140