Solving Syria’s Puzzle

The days of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad are numbered, though we don’t know the exact number. It may be a long, gory and suppurating goodbye. But goodbye it will be and good riddance.

Since Assad has turned down the Arab League’s offer of a quick and safe exit, the odds are that he will be slain like a dog — a la Qaddafi — when the fighters of the Free Syrian Army finally break through the walls of his last bastion. Whatever happens to him, he will not be the problem.

The first problem will be the militias of the minority Alawites, the Christians and the elite Sunnis who have killed and committed atrocities in the name of Assad — and their fear of the terrible butchery that will be their fate in the hands of the triumphant majority. They will retreat to their respective sanctuaries and there sell their lives as dearly as possible. The sieges will be long and bloody.

Another problem will be the stockpile of chemical weapons with which Assad has threatened foreign invaders: with him no longer in control, that stockpile could fall into the hands of Al Qaeda and other so-called jihadists. Reports are rife that these troublemakers are already in Syria fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army. If they get their hands on the chemical weapons, populations, not necessarily Syrian, could be fumigated to extinction.

Perhaps the biggest problem will be the lack of a credible national authority to take over the reins of governance. What Syria sorely needs is its version of Mahmoud Jibril of Libya.

Not your average glib politician, Jibril is worldly-wise and level-headed. His heart is in the right place too: in the heat of the Libyan rebellion, he gave strict orders for freedom fighters to refrain from atrocities and to treat prisoners humanely. Today he is the country’s unifier and is likely to be its first elected president. Lacking such a leader, the situation in Syria could be worse post-Assad.

Is Syria totally hopeless? There’s one shred of hope: if, and that’s a big if, the global powers that be — the five permanent members of the United Nations, the Arab League and Iran — could find the political will, they could unite, step in and get all the factions to stop the killing. They could then establish safe havens for all civilians, and launch an all-inclusive dialogue in which the Sunni majority and all minority groups are represented. Of course, Al Qaeda and other radical foreign militias must be kept out in the cold.

The dialogue should yield a peace agreement that provides for the rehabilitation of the Syrian military, the disbandment of militias, the adoption of a constitution that guarantees not only the rights of minorities but also their equitable participation in the national life, and national elections under UN supervision. The foreign powers and international organizations involved should also firmly commit themselves to help rebuild Syria.

An idle dream? No, it has basis in history. A process like this put an end to decades of civil war in Cambodia. It began with the Jakarta Informal Meetings of 1988 in which the factions barely talked. But in October 1991, co-chairs Indonesia and France led 18 countries in signing the peace agreements that led to the birth of modern Cambodia. The process culminated in UN-supervised elections in May 1993.

Of course, Syria is not Cambodia, but there are significant similarities that argue for robust international cooperation to solve the Syrian puzzle. Considering its experience in such undertakings, Indonesia could participate as interlocutor for either the Organization of Islamic Cooperation or the Non-aligned Movement. And Assad? By the time a process like this takes place, he will be smoldering in an unmarked grave or in a holding cell of the International Criminal Court.

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