Posted by on September 26, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013


By the look of things, almost everyone in the international community wants a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

On Tuesday, President Obama reiterated his calls for a political solution at the United Nations General Assembly. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran made similar overtures hours later. A few days ago, Russian President Vladmir Putin announced that “the Collective Security Treaty Organization member states agree that the only solution to the Syrian crisis is through peaceful political settlement.”

Numerous world leaders can be heard making the same sound bite. Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the United Nations “should explore ways to avoid further militarization of the conflict and revitalize the search for a political settlement instead.” China, France, Germany, Israel, Egypt, the E.U., Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have all stressed a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis in some form. The list goes on.

Those directly involved militarily in the conflict have latched on to the idea. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Monday, “Think about the safety of the people in this region. Whoever declines calls for political solutions in Syria has Syrian blood on his hands.” The same day, the Syrian National Coalition stated that “we are not against a political solution that is in line with what the uprising erupted for.” Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has articulated the need for a diplomatic solution, although with his own preconditions of “stopping the violence.”

It appears, then, that almost everyone agrees a political solution is necessary. So what’s the problem?

First, chemical weapons negotiations and Russian and Syrian “cooperation” have provided a convenient distraction that puts initial attempts at overthrowing the Assad regime further from reach. After all, some may ask, why would you want to exchange a leader who has demonstrated his will to cooperate with the U.N. for an uncertain Syrian future that could look like today’s Egypt or Libya?  

Second, the duration of the conflict has broadened the pool of actors who now have a stake in the “political solution.” Extremist militants are fighting their way into Syrian territory without any interest in a settlement that would threaten their new strongholds. Assad doesn’t want a political solution as long as he believes he can maintain authority over his country. Russia will not budge on their positions as long as their legitimacy continues to improve regionally and internationally. And the United States will not involve itself unless the consequences of not dedicating more effort would prove catastrophic for the American people.

None of these scenarios have played out.

We are left with a crisis that is not “ripe” for a diplomatic settlement. Competing parties still believe they can “win” and that there is some benefit to continuing the fight. A stalemate in which there is no politically positive way forward has not happened.

Early on, people were either for or against the Assad regime. Now, stakeholders are faced with layers of complicated and overlapping issues, such as chemical weapons, funding from proxies, refugees, questions of post-transition leadership, regaining lost territory, battling extremist elements, religious divisions and more. It is just as possible to be against radicalized groups and against Assad as it is to be against radicalized groups and for Assad. If the conflict was ripe for settlement in early 2011, the window of opportunity has narrowed ever since, and no party finds it enticing to pursue any other means besides fighting.

Most importantly, there is no clarity on what a political solution entails. At one point it was assumed Assad would have to leave as part of any settlement to the crisis. Now, a settlement could theoretically involve Assad hanging on to power.

Competing narratives have been formulated by all parties, each with a sense of authority. A potential diplomatic agreement needs to be articulated so that it can be debated and argued over and reworked. We need to determine if Assad would only stop the killing if he stayed in power and what it would take to stop Iran, the Gulf countries, Russia and the United States from arming those in the region and for Hezbollah to stop sending fighters into Syria.

Political solutions are not distinct from the military component, but the international community would benefit from unique options and ideas that connect the regional dots and can be discussed, reevaluated and shot down.

Maybe Assad can compete in his 2014 elections in exchange for his chemical weapons arsenal and international election monitoring. Maybe Iran would negotiate over Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon if Assad could compete in 2014. Maybe Assad can be granted asylum if he relinquishes power and Iran agrees to discuss its nuclear program. Maybe there is a way for Russia to support withdrawal of Assad’s forces from some Syrian territory, like it publicly did in 2005 when Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon with U.N. backing. Maybe the focus should only be on a ceasefire agreement.

Instead, we talk about who will safeguard Syria’s chemical weapons and how the U.N. will pass a resolution on this singular aspect of the conflict. If this is truly a step to a political solution, it needs to be made clear. After all, it would be better to fight over the terms of an agreement to end the violence in Syria at the expense of red pens and sheets of paper rather than on the ground at the expense of red lines and Syrian lives.

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