Syria: An Orderly Transition
by Rene Wadlow
Can there be an orderly transition within Syria toward a new regime which reflects Syria’s pluralistic society?
Can this orderly transition process avoid additional violence, and increased hostility among segments of society?
Can an orderly transition process avoid a destabilizing impact of the conflict on neighbouring countries?
Can an orderly transition process avoid external actors from manipulating segments of Syrian society and so avoid an increased presence of external jihadists?
What positive role can the United Nations play in this orderly transition process?
These were some of the basic questions which faced Mr Kofi Annan when he became the joint envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States in February 2012. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General who had spent his entire career in the UN system, is a seasoned mediator. He has written of his experiences in a new book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.
As mediator, he undertook discussions with most of the relevant actors among Syrians and with the leaders of States which have an influence in the conflict such as the United States, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others.
From his discussions and observations, he proposed first steps based on a ceasefire —“a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms with effective United Nations supervision mechanisms”, a release of arbitrarily detained persons, freedom of association and increased humanitarian aid.
The implementation of his proposals did not follow, and he resigned his mandate on 2 August 2012 with, no doubt, a feeling of frustration. Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Foreign Minister of Algeria and a long-time participant in the UN system was appointed on 17 August to continue the mediation mission. Basically, Brahimi has maintained Annan’s concerns but has tried to outline further steps for an orderly transition toward “a clear recognition that the ultimate objective is to enable the Syrian people to exercise their legitimate rights to dignity and human rights and to have a full say in the manner in which they are governed.”
On 29 January 2013, Lakhdar Brahimi presented his most recent report to a closed meeting of the UN Security Council but then repeated his remarks to a press conference followed by a UN press release. . He painted the now largely known picture of people killed, many more wounded, two million persons displaced internally within Syria, and some 700,000 refugees going to neighbouring countries and inadequate humanitarian aid. He added ”There evidently is now a better assessment worldwide, of the tragic dimension of this crisis and its terrible consequences on the Syrian population and no less important, of the huge disintegrating impact is having on the social fabric of the country, of the rising influence of extremist groups on both sides and the growing violent sectarian alignments.”
He then asked, rhetorically, “Does the diplomatic management measure up to the dimensions of the tragedy and the stakes at play? Does the pressure from third parties on the belligerents to accept a negotiated settlement measure up to the violence and devastation? To all these questions, I am sure you will agree, the answer is at best, a very polite ‘not enough’ “
While repeating the ritualistic concept that a political solution must be worked out by the Syrians themselves and that there needs to be a SYRIAN PLAN (caps in the original), he also stressed based on his experience that “The Syrians, alas, are not really ready to talk to one another even through intermediaries. They need much help to reach that stage.” He repeated “Syrians cannot themselves start a peace process, their neighbours are not able to help them…Far from being in a position to help Syrians solve their present problem, the region is facing the risk of being itself contaminated by Syria’s difficulties and engulfed in its crisis…Only the international community may help.”
The situation in Syria becomes increasingly complex. Brahimi analysed “What we are presently witnessing in Syria is at the same time, and with the same intensity, a struggle INSIDE Syria and a struggle FOR Syria (caps in the original). The combination of these two processes substantially fuels the present conflict and complicates its settlement through diplomatic mediation.”
In his analysis, he sees a positive role that the United States and the Russian Federation can play jointly in the struggle FOR Syria in indicating to all States with an interest in the region that the USA and Russia jointly oppose the disintegration of Syria into separate sectarian states; that they jointly oppose the society falling into chaos of conflicting groups; that they jointly oppose the coming to power of an Islamist party that would ignore the pluralistic nature of Syrian society; that they jointly oppose an increase in arms flowing into the area, and oppose jointly the increased presence of foreign fighters.
Brahimi has facilitated a recent meeting between the US Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister, followed by two meetings of their high level representatives working on Middle East issues.
Likewise in the struggle WITHIN Syria, there seems to be small moves toward a political process for an orderly transition. There was a 6 January 2013 speech of President al-Assad which, while not exactly Lincoln’s “with malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive to bind up this nation’s wounds” was an indication that some motion may be possible. There is also the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué which sets out a comprehensive orderly transition process based on the formation of a transitional coalition government whose main task would be a revision of the Syrian constitution probably moving from the present Presidential system to a Parliamentary multi-party system. The creation of this transitional government “with full executive powers” would lead to the release of detained persons. There would be freedom of assembly and of the press which would facilitate the formation of political parties followed by elections to a new Parliament — elections monitored by the United Nations.
The 30 June Geneva Communiqué does not speak of President Bashar al-Assad and his role in the transition and beyond, but it is probably understood that a “governing body with full executive power” clearly meant that the President would have no role in the transition.
It is likely that negotiations will have to start outside Syria with a small number of negotiators and perhaps the continuation of the presence of the UN mediator.
However discussions and efforts can be started within Syria on some stages of the process such as planning a new constitution and the formation of political parties prior to the creation of a coalition transition government.
We have seen from the changes in regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt that the holding of elections is not the only element in the creation of a new and just society. If we consider the early post-Mandate period, 1946-1960, there was an uneven but rich political life in Syria. Some of this political culture has continued even under the one-party State of the Ba’th. However the earlier Syrian political scene was that of “winner take all” with little spirit of compromise or agreed-upon steps for the public good, leading to the Army playing a recurrent political role. The current armed conflict is unlikely to have created a new spirit of cooperation.
Therefore, there is a need for new, trans-ethnic and trans-sectarian groups to organize themselves into political parties for future elections and to build networks within all regions of the country. We saw in Egypt that once multi-party elections were possible a host of new parties were created —many too many which only confused voters and led to the position of strength of the Muslim Brotherhood which was already well organized. If this is not to happen in Syria, a broad coming together of individuals is needed: those who believe in non-violence, equality of women and men, ecologically-sound development, and cooperative action for the common good. Such a coming together needs to be started now so as to be able to take the stage when the election process starts.
For those of us who are not Syrians but who are co-workers for a positive and pluralistic Syrian society, these next few months call for coordinated action. There needs to be efforts directed toward the US and Russian governments for the creation of a joint policy. There is a need to reach out to all Syrian groups — those who have taken arms as well as those whop work with political means – to stress that there is a partly open “window of opportunity” and that negotiations need to be undertaken. Above all, there is a need to reach out to non-violent groups in Syria to indicate our willingness to be of service, to ask for their views and to work together for an orderly transition of the government and the creation of a more just and pluralistic Syrian Society.
René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.