A paper recently published by the Carter Center, offered what it believes is a creative idea about how to bring a decade of Syrian bloodshed to an end.
A Path to Conflict Transformation in Syria: A Framework for a Phased Approach appears reasonable, but the strategy will not work.
It’s a pragmatic proposal, but while the Assad regime retains control of the country it is not feasible.
With a dozen UN and Arab League proposals all in play, a settlement in Syria is not short on ideas. History teaches us that the Assad dynasty has often used any processes available that included negotiations with Western powers.
For Bashar al-Assad, negotiation is not about making settlements, but to end his isolation globally, and bolster his position against his opponents.
The Carter Center proposal was endorsed by the veteran US diplomat, Jeffrey Feltman, who previously served as an ambassador to Lebanon, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and the UN’s Under Secretary General for Political Affairs.
The center identified seven points of contention with the Syrian regime. These are: Political reform; the issue of political prisoners; refugee return; civilian protection and humanitarian access; an Idlib ceasefire; foreign actors present in the country, and chemical weapons.
It suggested three phases for settlement with Assad. Every time the Syrian president verifiably cooperates, such as endorsing the UN’s constitutional committee, or dropping terrorism charges against committee members, America and Europe will reward him by, for example, reopening their embassies in Damascus.
When Assad cooperates further, such as adopting a new, or amended constitution, or organizing credible “local, parliamentary and presidential elections, in which all Syrians, including refugees, are able to participate,” America and Europe will exchange ambassadors with him.
Such a phased approach applies to the other identified contentious areas, such as political prisoners and chemical weapons. On conclusion of the phases, it's believed Syria will have transformed into an inclusive democracy from Assad's autocratic rule.
Assad has rebutted such propositions in the past, saying that what his opponents could not take through war, is not available for them through peace.
Assad might find these American and European proposals good Trojan horses that can allow him back into the international community. Once in, Assad will renege on whatever promises, or even reverse whatever concessions he offered. Declaring a state of emergency — including suspending the constitution and arresting released political prisoners — is relatively easy for the Syrian regime to do.
Assad might grasp America’s extended hand to improve his position without conceding anything. He will simply take a page from his father’s playbook, during which the late Syrian dictator, Hafez, pocketed Western and Arab concessions, but rarely lived up to his promises, and often asked for bigger concessions.
It was this way that Hafez always used negotiations with Israel as a tool to mitigate Western pressures on him. Whenever the late Assad found himself on the bad side of America and Europe, he flouted the idea of talks with Israel, which naturally raised hopes for Middle East peace in the West. Western capitals then turned a blind eye toward Assad’s troublemaking and rolled out the red carpet for Assad officials.
Like his late father, Bashar Assad uses such techniques when finding himself in trouble. After Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri's assassination in 2005, Assad suffered severe international isolation. He asked Turkey to sponsor indirect peace talks with Israel. In a panel at the Hudson Institute in 2010, Feltman said that it was these talks that opened the door for Assad out of his international isolation. Feltman knows exactly how Assad uses the process with any kind of engagement with the West. Not to achieve settlement with his rivals, but to regain international recognition, which he uses to bolster his positions against rivals.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, when President Bashar Assad was militarily on the back foot, he offered concessions. When Russia and Iran put their fingers on the scale and Assad surged, he stopped showing any interest in settling with his opponents. While Assad would love to see the US and EU remove their sanctions, he can certainly survive them until the global scene changes in his favor.