Since the Syrian crisis started three years ago, the powers interested in its outcome have always fallen one step behind events. As it prepares for yet another conference on Syria next month in Geneva, the international community may again be out of step with the realities of a tragic situation.
If information leaked from several capitals is right, the Geneva gathering would discuss the creation of a “transition authority.” That scheme might have made sense three years ago when Syria faced a popular uprising against the regime. At that point, the outline of a possible compromise was beginning to take shape. The scheme failed because the major powers, notably the United States and Russia, refused to back it. The US thought that the Syrian despot would go the same way as those of Tunisia and Egypt, and thus there was no need to for a major American commitment. Acting as an opportunist power, Russia hedged its bets and hoped to land on the winning side with a minimum investment.
But while the powers dithered, the Syrian crisis mutated into a nationwide insurrection, then a civil war, a sectarian struggle and, finally, a humanitarian tragedy.
That the problem we now face is no longer the same as it was three years ago is clear from the latest assessments of the situation by the United Nations and ancillary organizations. Today, some 60 percent of the Syrian population of around 20 million consists of refugees in neighboring countries, displaced persons inside the Syria, and “captive communities” living in permanent states of siege.
For all intents and purposes, Syria has experienced what political scientists call a systemic collapse. The machinery of government has been shattered, with most ministries and state-controlled services operating at less than a third of their normal capacity. The nation’s educational network has morphed into an archipelago of isolated schools and universities catering for a fraction of those who need it. Inadequate at the best of times, the nation’s health service has suffered even more. According to the World Health Organization, fewer than 30 hospitals are still operating under more or less acceptable conditions while a range of epidemics, long extinct in the country, are making a comeback.
A study prepared for the Geneva conference also shows that the army and the police, long the backbone of the regime, have ceased to exist as institutions dealing with national security.
Tens of thousands of officers, non-commissioned officers and privates have defected to various armed opposition groups. Many more have simply deserted to their villages or have become refugees abroad. What is left of the army and police consists of a hodgepodge of death squads often armed and, at times, even controlled by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah.
Worse still, the opposition has morphed into a nebula of groups with rival ideologies and little or no clear vision of what they want. (They all know what they don’t want: the continuation of the Assad regime!)
In such a context, talking of “transition” may be a puerile exercise. A transition would make sense only if there was an established authority from which one could transit to an alternative moral and political authority.
Today, the question is no longer that Syria has a bad government; it is that Syria has no government in the normal sense of the term. Bashar Al-Assad still makes occasional television appearances on foreign channels, posturing as the head of a non-existent government. He is, at best, the leader of one faction among many. Assad’s presidential term is due to end next spring. He is, of course, bluffing that he would seek another seven-year term, knowing full well that even holding one of the fake elections that Syria has always had is no longer physically possible.
The real problem, therefore, is to see Syria transformed into an ungoverned space and a battleground for several parallel wars that could continue for as long as outsiders are prepared to arm rival groups.
Such an outcome would not serve the interests of any of the powers involved in this tragedy on opposite sides. Cynics might say let Russia and Iran keep their chips on Assad and pay the price. Facing a looming cash-flow problem, the mullahs of Tehran might not find it easy to maintain the Assad regime as a spendthrift mistress that grows uglier by the day. As for Russia, it faces the risk of being sucked into an endless conflict with no credible prospects for reaping any benefits and the possibility of losing big.
For the first time in three years, participants in the Geneva II may have a few common interests, chief among them preventing Syria from becoming a bleeding wound on the Mediterranean.
Geneva II might be useful if it focuses on the realities of the situation. The most urgent task is to mobilize the resources needed to face the humanitarian disaster. An unknown number of Syrians have already died in this conflict, and many more face death by hunger, disease and exposure to the elements.
Will Russia and Iran be prepared to put their hands in their pockets and contribute to the UN appeal for resources? Or are they only ready to give Assad money and arms to kill more Syrians?
The next task would be to set up UN-protected safe haven where Syrians could receive a minimum of aid inside the country. Would Russia and Iran support such a scheme, or would they help Assad bomb camps for displaced people and besieged communities?
With an agenda that might have been relevant three years ago, Geneva II will get nowhere and Syrian democrats have no reason to attend it.