There can be no peace without justice in Syria

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

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The United States, European countries, Russia, Iran and Arab states met in Vienna last week to try to resolve the Syrian conflict. Predictably they failed to reach an agreement, but the meeting was reportedly not altogether fruitless, and participants agreed to meet again in two weeks.

Getting these countries to agree on a course of action for Syria is easier than actually achieving peace, because there is no guarantee that a deal agreed by these parties will be the right deal for Syria. There can be no peace without justice - this has been the lesson of so many other conflicts. However, it seems unlikely that Syrians will get justice from the negotiations.


The Shiite Alawite regime in Syria has committed crimes against humanity, particularly toward the Sunni majority. Shiites fear brutal reprisals if the regime falls, and not without reason. Meanwhile, Sunnis are unlikely to stop fighting until they can be satisfied that justice will be served for the hundreds of thousands dead and more than 10 million displaced.

there needs to be an agreement that all the leaders of the various factions should, as much as possible, be held accountable for atrocities against civilians.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Perhaps the only recent example of a country that has successfully emerged from a similar civil war is Bosnia in the 1990s. Its success was predicated on two factors: the main instigators of the civil war and the worst abuses against civilians were handed over to be tried for crimes against humanity at The Hague; and the country was effectively partitioned along ethnic lines.

Both these things will be necessary in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad and his leading commanders need to be tried for crimes against humanity. However, rebel groups - not least the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - are similarly guilty of such crimes.

As such, there needs to be an agreement that all the leaders of the various factions should, as much as possible, be held accountable for atrocities against civilians. In addition, the country may need to be federalized or partitioned along sectarian lines.

Assad’s fate is the main sticking point. Russia and Iran fear losing their regional influence if his regime falls. Both countries have invested hugely in the Assad dynasty for decades, and will not just give into demands to have him removed. If they could be persuaded that Assad himself could be disposed of, they would insist that the core group of people that constitutes his regime remains de-facto in power in some shape or other.

U.S. and European negotiators could be persuaded to accept such an arrangement, especially in the current climate where Russia and Iran seem to hold all the cards in terms of military deployment on the ground in Syria. The problem is that if Syrian Sunnis perceive that not all those responsible for the many unspeakable atrocities against their community have been held to account, they will not stop fighting.


The idea of federalizing or partitioning Syria is not on the cards for any of the negotiators. The West has a seemingly innate distaste toward adjusting borders, even when it is patently clear that those borders are meaningless, senseless, and only promote conflict. Russia and Iran have no interest in seeing their client state diminished in such a way.

Yet by now it should be clear to any observer that there is no such thing as a “Syrian” people. Alawites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds have made it amply clear in the past four and a half years of conflict that they do not feel themselves to be part of the same national identity.

They are not a national community. They are a number of sectarian and ethnic communities trapped in a perpetual struggle of us versus them within the prison of the “national” borders of the Syrian state. Should we not even entertain the notion that these communities should be allowed to go their separate ways in peace?
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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