The main problem with a recently published “proposed strategy” for Syria, recommending the establishment of safe zones, is that it seems to give Syrian opposition areas the name of “safe zone” without changing the actual status quo. The proposed strategy circles back to the same questions of sending American troops even in limited numbers, or creating pockets of more viable security and governance inside Syria. The point of start of this “reversed counter insurgency” plan does not include the elements without which it could be implemented.
Any analysis of the nature of the Syrian crisis ends with the same question: Where to start? Breaking new grounds, conceptually, should be based on the concrete facts on the ground the way they actually exist. Naming areas currently under the control of the Kurds in the north or Zahran Aloush in the south “safe zones” will hardly change their nature. These are areas that are defined by dynamic lines, constantly challenged by ISIL and the regime, warlordism is one of their constant features and they are vulnerable to external forces’ will. If it was different, the point of start would have been easier.
Furthermore, Syria as a country is not over yet. Unseen reservoir of national bond among Syrians still exits. True it is not manifested in any apparent way at present, but it is there. The process of fragmentation is going on, yet there is time still to reverse it and start the difficult journey of social healing. Defeat should not be declared before trying all possible paths to save that country of its own demons and the reckless efforts of external powers to fight their wars to the last Syrian.
The tough point is where to start. For it is understood that any given step will be followed by matching consequences. Starting from understanding that there is some time, however short, still left before Syria reaches the point of no return, leads to looking at Damascus. Damascus is not only the capital of the “state of Syria”, it is also where people from different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds live together. It is, moreover, the concrete center of the abstract “concept” of a unified Syria even at present when picturing a unified Syria is difficult.
To write off Damascus as a valid starting point is to give up on Syria. Resisting the process of dissecting this regionally central country will substantially reduce the descent of the Middle East into total chaos.
But what does it mean exactly to “make Damascus the starting point”?
It briefly means to start from the central government. Trying to reinstitute the concept of central government as such is trying to preserve Syria’s national army and security structure with all the rest of the functions of a central government, even if it is currently neither central nor government. In other words, not starting from Damascus means giving up the concept of a central government in Syria altogether even before the moment when it will be evident that it cannot be preserved anymore.
But preserving this concept at present may hardly be supported by facts on the ground. This is true, at least in large portions of Syria. Yet, if the debate about a strategy to solve the Syrian crisis starts from Damascus it will be possible to preserve, at least conceptually, the state and its functions. Such an organizing principle will sensitize the debate to the centrality of avoiding a repetition of what happened in Libya or Iraq in the case of Syria. In Baghdad, the central government was dismantled to pursue the naïve idea of building an externally imposed democratic system. What we see in Libya is not democracy as far as we can tell. If we neglect Damascus in any debate about Syria, we will lose our way in the maze of North and South Syria, and compromise the centrality of the government and all its functions.
In practical terms, the idea of starting from Damascus is based on two specific developments. The first is related to the Alawi community, and the second is based on the views of some prominent opposition figures in the southern front.
Every observer following what goes on in Syria now knows that the Alawi community is currently restless. The assumption among notable Alawi figures and families is that Assad has taken the whole community into an impasse. They are not certain of their future in Syria. This sentiment is enhanced by signs of a weakening President who is caving in to the Iranians and a feeling that the Iranians care only about their own interests.
And indeed Assad is showing unmistakable signs of fatigue. He cannot even convince his own Alawis to provide his armed forces with new recruits. Demonstrators in some Alawi towns were raising banners that read: “We will not die for Iran”.
While this may seems as a negative development in some views as it adds fragmentation to an already fragmented country, it might be positive if integrated into the search for a valid concept to save Syria and its state structure. The Alawi community discontent should be added to the fact that prominent Sunni families in Damascus understand that if something is not done soon, ISIL, just few miles away from the Syrian capital, will come and they will be no more. Both sides meet on the common ground of understanding the importance of preserving the Syrian State and its functions, the danger of terrorist groups and the need for Assad to go if that will help save Syria.
If the sentiments among the Alawis, as reported everywhere, is true, and in fact it is, it is difficult to assume that this sentiment is not reflected among the high level officials in the Syrian state and armed forces. And indeed it is. We have seen recently many of those officials disappear in very suspicious circumstances. Furthermore, we know as a matter of fact that many Alawi Syrian officers are very worried, and for good reason, they see the regime collapsing slowly in front of their own eyes. Assad cannot play his propaganda numbers on them anymore. They understand that their future as a community is seriously threatened. For them, promises of an Alawi enclave in the coastal strip do not only mean the end of Syria, they also mean a continuation of the war. If the Alawis run to the coast, the banner of a unified Syria will be carried by the opposition and they will be accused of betraying their imaginary homeland. Their future in their enclave will be far from safe. As they would have lost most of Syria, the will risk losing the rest.
The current moment when the regime is slowly losing is the proper moment to move to save Syria from Assad and ISIL. A deal between Damascus merchant families and some Alawi officers will be blessed by an important section of the southern opposition provided that Assad is kicked out of Syria or killed by his own men. The social base of ISIL will be reduced. And most opposition groups will be invited to participate in a future pluralist Syria where the Alawis, Christians, Druze, and above all Syria’s Sunni majority are treated as equal citizens.
What does a scenario like that require? The general headline in that regard is that a firm international backing is needed for any bold move of that sort in Damascus. Relevant capitals have the assets but not the will. Some messages coming out from Damascus reflected a need for help to move to save the country. Proper expressions of a firm intention to providing political cover and logistic support coupled with real time assistance is possible and necessary.
Maybe the lack of will to go down this road, shown in the past, stems from the uncertainty about what will follow such a gambit. But the whole situation is uncertain anyway. Prior arrangements with the Southern Front and its sponsors may reduce the risk to a certain extent. The leading role of the Alawi officers and the preservation of the Syrian national army will reduce it further. A prior “understanding” with prominent Alawi and Sunni figures and families in Damascus will provide a kind of popular support.
But even removing the highest echelon of the regime will not bring an immediate solution. It will merely open the road for a reconfiguration of forces on the ground and providing a wider space to fight terrorist groups. Making Damascus the starting point will enable Syria to preserve its State structure and opens a host of new options to solve this “mother of all crisis”.