Rift Removal

Why cooperation and coordination are the political keys to ending the Syrian crisis.

This background paper was created in preparation for the PeaceGame, a program co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace on Dec. 9-10, 2013. For more information, please go to www.peace-game.com.

The situation in Syria is dire, and there are no good options for addressing it; even the option of doing nothing is terrible, both morally and strategically. Inaction by the international community allows the killing to continue. Military intervention risks uncontrollable involvement without an obvious positive outcome. Although all agree that only a political solution can end the conflict, there is no agreement on the shape of such a solution.

A negotiated settlement will have to get the support of the Western-backed Syrian opposition, the jihadi opposition, the Syrian Kurdish community, the Syrian regime, the neighboring countries, and major interested powers. The formula worked out in June 2012 at Geneva gives both the opposition and the regime veto power over the composition of an interim government that would oversee stabilization, reconstruction, political resolution and, eventually, peace. A successful negotiation in Geneva, then, is a key political challenge on the road to peace. The U.N. secretary-general has taken the first significant step in tackling the challenge, calling for negotiations to commence on Jan. 22, 2014.

But there are many other related political challenges -- in particular, organizational fragmentation. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has significant military capability and is politically unified. The Russian and Iranian governments support the regime with weapons, fighting formations, money, and political support at the United Nations Security Council. The opposition and its supporters, on the other hand, are fractured. The opposition is divided among the relative moderates in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, "the Coalition"; the Syrian Kurds; and groups of Sunni, largely foreign jihadists intent on establishing an Islamist state.

Under the leadership of Ahmad al-Jarba, the Coalition struggles to maintain coherence among three factions. The first, with which Jarba is aligned, is supported by Saudi Arabia and led by veteran dissident Michel Kilo; the second, supported by Qatar, is led by Mustafa Sabbagh; the third, under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council, is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, although leaders within the SNC represent different constituencies. Western powers have supported the Coalition with technical assistance, political backing, and limited, non-lethal military equipment.

Regional competition further damages the Syrian opposition. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar provide the opposition with diplomatic and material support; the Saudis and Qataris provide financing; and the Turks allow the opposition to use its territory to organize and train. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, however, support individual leaders rather than a coherent organization. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait tend to follow the Saudi lead, while Turkey tends to reinforce Qatari initiatives.

This lack of coordination results in rivalries among opposition factions, in particular between the Coalition and the jihadi forces. The perception that jihadi forces are better funded has led several Islamist groups to leave the already-struggling Coalition for the better-funded forces supported by private donors in the Gulf States.

The Kurds are divided between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC). The KNC has recently aligned with the Syrian National Coalition. The PYD's loyalties are suspect: Its leadership is widely believed to have preserved ties with the Assad regime and recently announced the formation of an autonomous interim government, leading to a backlash from the opposition. Other parties -- the Coalition, the Turks, the Iraqi government -- constantly worry about cross-border Kurdish independence aspirations.

Of the hard-line jihadi groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have emerged as the most effective and aggressive, and they compete for territory and influence with the Coalition and its military force, the Supreme Military Council (SMC). Jabhat al-Nusra has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and U.N, among others.

Getting this diverse range of parties to a negotiating table is the immediate challenge. The Syrian opposition is reluctant and divided about participating in the January negotiations, finding it difficult to justify sitting down with a regime that has massacred over 110,000 Syrians with chemical weapons, artillery, fighter bombers, and ground troops. The Syrian Kurds are similarly reluctant to join. Meanwhile, the jihadi extremists are doing better on the battlefield than the moderates, but the regime may be making progress against both. The opposition is not eager to negotiate from a position of perceived weakness, expecting a regime with military momentum to be uncompromising.

What's more, if negotiations do begin as scheduled in January, the SNC would never agree to an interim government headed by Assad -- but without pressure from Russia and Iran, Assad will not step aside.

Given this complicated milieu, there are several possible, if improbable, paths forward.

First, if the Russians and Iranians could be convinced that their interests would be protected in a Syria without Assad, they might be able to offer the president, his family, and immediate supporters asylum in Russia or another willing country. The Russians may not have strong ties to Assad himself, but they do have long-standing interests in Syria, including a naval base -- their only base outside Russia's borders. With assurances from Western powers regarding continued influence in a Syria without Assad, the Russians could conceivably be persuaded to ease him out.

The Iranians and their new leadership, meanwhile, are clearly rethinking their role in the world. Remembering Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war, Iranians have been horrified at the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, Hezbollah may have damaged its relations with some of its supporters by openly intervening militarily in Syria, a departure from its traditional focus on Israel. Although keeping the Syria issue separate from the nuclear negotiations will be important, the time may be ripe for Western powers to push the Iranians on Syria.

If the Russians and Iranians agree to lean on Assad to step aside -- not run in next year's election, retire to a nice dacha, agree to tacit understandings on prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) -- the Geneva negotiations would be more likely to succeed in establishing an interim governing authority, or U.N.-supervised elections could identify the leaders of an interim government.

Second, outside powers could agree to cut off assistance and support to their respective sides of the civil war. Without external political and military support, neither side could long endure. Such a withdrawal of support would require unusual cooperation among the United States, Europeans, Turkey, Gulf Arabs, and Russia -- and again, Iran would have to be involved as well.

The political, religious, ideological, and sectarian divisions between Saudi Arabia and Iran make this option most challenging. No sponsor can agree to withdraw support unilaterally. Such a coordinated action would require unusual cooperation -- but not unprecedented, as the 1990 Lebanon and 1999 Kosovo cases illustrate. A U.N. peacekeeping force could be considered to provide civilian security during the transition.

A third possible way forward would be Western powers and Arab states finally coordinating political and military support for the Coalition and the SMC, in an attempt to bolster the possibility that opposition forces could regain momentum. This would enable them to begin to consolidate control over territory, mainly in the north-central and northern regions of the country, eventually giving them political and military capability to negotiate a power-sharing agreement to form the interim government foreseen in the 2012 Geneva agreement. Attempts at such coordination have been made, unsuccessfully, for the past year.

Finally, representatives of Syrian opposition forces -- and other observers -- argue that a successful political solution to the conflict is impossible without outside military intervention to weaken or defeat the Assad regime. Such military actions could range from targeted missile strikes on Assad's air force, to humanitarian corridors, to no-fly zones in the north or the south. Outside intervention could enable the opposition military forces to regain momentum and give the Coalition leverage in negotiations with the Assad regime.

The Geneva negotiations take on heightened importance because alternatives seem worse. Chances of success in Geneva could be enhanced by intensified diplomatic work with Russia and Iran, coordinated action among outside supporters of the opposition and the regime, renewed attempts to consolidate support for the opposition, or -- as a last resort -- military action.

Odd Anderson/AFP/Getty Images


Neighborhood Watch

Why regional players will be indispensable to achieving peace in Syria.

This background paper was created in preparation for the PeaceGame, a program co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace on Dec. 9-10, 2013. For more information, please go to www.peace-game.com.

After nearly 30 months of conflict in Syria, millions of refugees have fled across the country's borders, and violent spillover has touched Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. What has been characterized as a civil war has already morphed into a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran and heightened sectarian polarization that is eroding stability in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. Regional powers are using Syria as grounds for proxy wars, supporting factions -- both regime and opposition -- within the country to avenge their own grievances and wrest power from the other. Extremist militias in Syria predominantly consisting of foreign fighters have gained the advantage over more moderate rebel forces; when these fighters return from the battlefront, they bring volatility back home. And the war now threatens to spark greater regional confrontations, in particular in Lebanon and Jordan, where the conflict's effects have already strained economies and led to resentment among local populations.

Amid ever-changing dynamics, Syria's conflict is likely to continue to unfold in myriad ways, each of which will pose new challenges and threats of differing magnitude not only to the Syrian people and opposition forces, but also to regional actors and the international community. Any approach to mitigating violence or negotiating a political settlement must involve regional powers and address conflict and grievances not only within Syria, but also among its neighbors.

There are at least three critical regional challenges on the road to peace in Syria.

Refugees. The U.N. estimates that more than 2.1 million registered Syrian refugees have fled Syria, with more than 775,000 registered in Lebanon, nearly 530,000 in Jordan, over 600,000 in Turkey, nearly 200,000 in Iraq, and over 125,000 in Egypt. Additionally, there are an estimated 4.25 million people displaced within Syria's borders. The humanitarian crisis is enormous.

Each refugee population places significant strain on the respective host country. Jordan hosts three official refugee camps; its largest, Zaatari, has over 120,000 people, making it equivalent to Jordan's fourth-largest city. However, many Syrians also live within urban centers, in particular in northern Jordan. Consequently, Jordanian schools exceed capacity, hospitals are over-burdened, and jobs are increasingly given to Syrians willing to accept lower wages than Jordanians. Jordan's already scarce water resources are even more taxed, and its suffering economy has been made worse. Jordanians are increasingly resentful of the Syrians who have sought refuge. The Jordanian monarchy remains highly concerned that the Syrian conflict will rattle Jordan's already fragile state to a breaking point.

Lebanon hosts no formal refugee camps but faces similar challenges from the Syrian refugee influx. Refugees live sprinkled across major cities, in ad hoc camps, or with local families. Not only do they present new competition for jobs and create strain on municipal services, but rising food, fuel, and housing prices have caused extra societal tension.

In Turkey, while official refugee camps sit along the southern border, it is estimated that two-thirds of Syrian refugees live outside the camps, predominantly in Turkey's southern cities. The Turkish government has maintained a self-proclaimed "open-door" policy, although it has occasionally closed the border during clashes. Syrian refugees cause similar social tensions and economic strains locally as they do in Lebanon and Jordan, though the effect is lessened somewhat because of Turkey's size and economic capacity.

Cross-border violence and destabilization. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel confront negative effects of spillover from Syria, including live fire and other violence, even if sporadic and contained thus far. In Lebanon in particular, existing societal divides are being exacerbated by explosive sectarian tensions within Syria. In Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, the Lebanese army has intervened on occasion to respond to clashes between pro- and anti-Assad forces. Both targeted attacks and skirmishes have erupted elsewhere along the Lebanon-Syria border, too.

Although it hasn't yet experienced the same level of Syria-related violence, Jordan is concerned not only about conflict spilling across Syria's borders and the implications of a potential Syrian state collapse, but also increasingly about the Jordanian jihadists who travel to join the fight in Syria and thereafter return home. Their repatriation has the potential to cause friction in their respective communities, and more so if they should turn their attention to fighting Jordan itself. The Jordanian army remains deployed along the border, ready to squelch violence that should arise related to conflict in Syria. The government has attempted to avoid taking sides in the conflict, while keeping its borders relatively open to humanitarian aid entering Syria. But more and more, Jordan is restricting access for refugees, particularly those of Palestinian descent.

In Turkey, clashes have erupted in the towns along its southern border, where many Syrian refugees live. Most recently, violent protests emerged in Kurdish areas along Turkey's southern border in response to planned construction of a border wall. The Turkish government alleges the barrier will enhance security and reduce smuggling; Turkey's Kurdish population argues that it is intended to separate Turkey's Kurds from their Syrian Kurdish relatives across the border. Resurgent Turkish Kurdish separatist movements have been of chief concern to Turkey throughout the Syrian conflict, particularly as Syrian Kurds -- who initially remained relatively neutral and removed from the conflict -- have gained political stature and increasingly asserted their own plans for self-governance.

Although Iraq was far from stable even before the conflict in Syria, violence next door has arguably rolled back earlier gains in stability, in particular as the al Qaeda-aligned Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has joined the fight and gained ground. ISIS leadership continues to hold and expand its battleground in Iraq as it becomes emboldened in Syria.

Thus far, violence has only occasionally affected Israel. Errant mortar shells have landed on the Israeli side of the border, and a few incidents of alleged fire aimed at Israeli targets have been reported. Although Israel has called for Assad's removal, it has otherwise stayed away from direct involvement in the conflict. Israel maintains the position that its primary concerns emanate from Hezbollah -- and thus far has reacted militarily only to threats related to the militant group.

Each country near Syria remains chiefly concerned for its domestic stability and has attempted to maintain it in different ways. The Turkish and Jordanian governments continue to allow international and NGO offices to facilitate the transfer of humanitarian assistance across their borders. Jordan has argued for the creation of humanitarian corridors, which have also been proposed by the U.N., to enable the secure transport of much-needed humanitarian aid into Syria. Humanitarian corridors would ensure demilitarized areas through which aid could pass. Turkey at times has advocated an internationally established no-fly zone in Syria, but it has been unwilling to take the lead in pursuing such an option and would not be able to facilitate it without others' support and involvement.

Regional powers fighting by proxy. As conflict in Syria has transformed from revolution against the regime to civil war, it has essentially become a playground for regional proxy wars. Although Jordan has attempted to avoid incurring Assad's animosity for the sake of protecting its own homeland, other regional neighbors have chosen sides. Gulf monarchies in particular have taken advantage of their physical distance, which largely protects them from retaliation, to directly support opposition forces fighting Assad. Aiming to dislodge Syria from the Iranian orbit, they see their actions as part of a larger campaign against Iran.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have provided funding and resources for rebel forces, and Saudi Arabia has provided arms. These countries' interest has been less focused on bolstering a coherent political opposition than on winning the fight against Assad militarily. However, traditional differences between Riyadh and Doha have played out on the Syrian front as well. Qatar has thrown much of its leverage behind both Muslim Brotherhood-aligned forces and more extreme Islamists, while Saudi Arabia -- threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood -- supports other factions of the opposition, including elements of the Syrian National Coalition and Salafists. Private Gulf donors, primarily from Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, have complicated matters further. Iran, meanwhile, continues to fund and arm the Assad regime, its military, and militia -- including through the deployment of Hezbollah forces to aid in the fight.

* * *

It will be impossible to mitigate violence in Syria, much less arrive at a negotiated settlement to the conflict, without involving and gaining the buy-in of regional powers. It will be critical, too, to consider in any future reconciliation, reconstruction and stabilization efforts the implications of the conflict -- past, present, and future -- on Syria's immediate neighbors.

The opportunities to restrain the regional implications of the conflict in Syria are few, especially in the absence of a coordinated external military response. However, the threats posed by turmoil in Syria for each of its neighbors may present opportunities to engage these respective regimes not only in efforts to continue to allow for humanitarian assistance, but also in containing the conflict and mitigating sectarian tensions on their own soil.

Arguably, the balance of power on the battlefield could shift if Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran ceased support for extremist opposition forces -- and ceased trying to needle one another through involvement in Syria. If Qatar and Saudi Arabia put aside their differences and directed support toward developing a coherent opposition coalition -- or interim government -- that coalition might be stronger and better able to unify. Support channeled directly to different elements of the opposition has contributed to its fragmentation, often intentionally, but sometimes inadvertently. By contrast, support for the Assad regime has been channeled to one address, which is then responsible for its dispersal, and a unified chain of command has therefore been better maintained. Although difficult to control, if private Gulf financing of extremist forces was curbed, violence could be mitigated further.

U.S. and Western diplomacy could be directed at encouraging or incentivizing countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait) to encourage them to cease supporting rival opposition forces, in particular those that directly contradict moderate Syrian opposition interests and run contrary to easing the conflict and sectarian tensions.

Far greater than Saudi Arabia's interest in supporting the Syrian opposition is Saudi Arabia's stake in countering Iran's influence -- diminishing its power and prying Syria away from its orbit. This could be leveraged more vigorously as an incentive for Saudi Arabia to seek an end to the conflict and support the establishment of a friendly, alternate leadership in Damascus, rather than fuel the fight against Assad militarily.

Although involving Iran in a diplomatic solution has and will continue to be difficult to facilitate, it will be crucial to continue to target diplomatic efforts at bringing Iran to the table alongside others. Involving Iran in a negotiations process, even if indirectly or through back-channel communications, will likely have a better chance of resulting in a ceasefire inclusive of Hezbollah and an agreement in which Iran pledges to cease military support for the Assad regime, even post-conflict. The recent negotiations and initial deal on the Iran nuclear program may provide a greater opening to bring Iran to the table for negotiations about Syria's future.