The Illusion of a Compromise in Syria
WASHINGTON—March 15th marks the second anniversary of the uprising in Syria. This is a movement that initially unfolded with the promise of achieving the highest expectations of the Arab Spring — a peaceful, inclusive protest bolstered by a civil society movement that was able to emerge and organize in spite of repression.
The two years since, however, have seen the steady transformation of this uprising into a corrosive internal war, with the massive peaceful demonstrations and their hopeful chants being replaced by the sounds and sights of warfare and carnage. Syria’s degeneration was evidently the result of local dynamics, even if amplified by regional and international involvement.
The ability of the Bashar al-Assad regime to survive so far is largely due to its successful maneuvering of international differences and of the lack of global resolve. Unfortunately, these international conditions continue, with the ongoing disagreement between the transatlantic partners on the possibility of a compromise to end the lethal stalemate in Syria.
The regime’s single message portrays the uprising as an action of mercenaries and terrorists who routinely engage in slaughtering the population that supports them in order to scapegoat the regime. As outlandish as this narrative may appear to an outside observer, supporters of the regime, in Syria and elsewhere, do not deviate from its persistent promulgation. It leaves no room for compromise: the conspiracy must be defeated and the criminals eradicated. The regime was thus able to achieve three tactical successes: it has normalized atrocities as a generic conduct of war and tamed the international community into accepting high levels of daily casualties.
Second, it has reshaped the conflict in the media and to some extent on the ground into one against radicalism. And third, it has destroyed enough of Syria’s infrastructure, and threatens yet more, to insure that no viable state will survive its demise. While Damascus has tightly adhered to its rhetorical convictions, the West and its allies have been experimenting with ceasefire appeals, observer missions, and promises of compromise. But the untold story of the Syrian revolution is that civil resistance to the repressive power of Assad’s regime continues to show remarkable resilience. Local committees are continuing to provide services and ensure social cohesion.
At the same time, the resistance is still made up of countless formations of loosely connected armed militants, with no credible unified command. The fractured character of this armed resistance is a result of the social segmentation and isolation policies enforced for decades by Damascus, but it also reflects the lack of unity on the part of the external supporters of the uprising. Unifying the multiple streams of funds and weapons made available to militants has been a consistent, but as yet unmet, demand of the opposition in exile. But the failure to coordinate support provided by the West and its regional partners is itself a by-product of the failure to reach a common vision of how to tackle a regime that benefits from the coherent, determined support of its allies — Iran and Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Russia.
Its tactical successes notwithstanding, the probability of the Damascus regime surviving is nil. Short of a genocide as the international community looks on, no scenario would restore the rule of fear in Syria. However, the regime can find solace in the continuing quest for compromise on the part of many in the West who seem inclined to believe that the regime may be amenable to a face-saving arrangement, which in turn would spare the Syrian people further tragedy. Damascus’ long record, however, suggests that their current pursuit will only extend its lease on life, and its ability to inflict death and destruction on the battered population. The world is better served if the transatlantic community held the regime accountable for the many red lines that it has already crossed.
Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.