This 9-points plan (click here for Arabic version) represents my own little contribution, offered through the auspices of the Tharwa Foundation, to ongoing efforts aimed at resolving the conflict in y home-country: Syria. As a peace plan, it may not represent the early expectations of the revolutionaries, not to mention my own, or any one side of this conflict for that matter. But parties to the Syrian conflict have to prepare themselves for settling for much less than they initially wanted and sought. The struggle for democracy is a complicated long-term process that requires continuous readjustments. It might begin with a protest movement or a popular revolution, but it does not end with it. Politics, no matter how derided and cynical it seems sometimes, remains a necessity.
The complicated issues related to the shape of future Syria and the nature and scope of the transitional justice process are differed to a later stage, due to the intricate calculations involved on all sides. The current plan merely aims to enable parties to the conflict, domestic, regional and international, to agree on a longer-term truce (perhaps as long as 5 years), while they negotiate a final settlement that might involve talks and compromises regarding developments in other countries and even other regions of the world, not only Syria. In other words, the idea is to exchange a violent long-term conflict for a long-term political process, no matter how complicated it is bound to be, in order to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.
The main aim of this Initiative is to transform the conflict in Syria from a devastating military operation into a political process through which the parties can agree on interim administration arrangements that would allow each party to start rebuilding what has been destroyed, resettle the refugees and provide humanitarian aid to the needy in their areas of control with the help of their regional and international allies. Meanwhile, talks regarding the final administrative, political, legal and constitutional status of the country could begin and should last as long as needed even if for years.
The essence of this initiative could be summarized in the following points:
- The parties should agree on clear ceasefire lines separating the areas under their respective control, and, during the transitional period, each region should be considered as a unified administrative unit, governed by a specific party in accordance with a specific internal consensus.
- The parties should agree on clear terms for cooperation between their respective regions in a number of critical areas, particularly with regard to security and the economy, and in regard to deciding on mechanisms for movement between the regions and for managing the existing relations between the different communities and social strata in each region.
- The parties should agree on neutralizing Damascus’s role in the conflict by establishing a neutral interim government there involving representatives of the various parties and tasked with managing the affairs of the city and its environs under the supervision of a special international committee appointed by the United Nations’ Security Council. Preferably, the UN special envoy to Syria should be empowered to form this interim government in consultation with all internal, regional and international parties concerned.
- The parties should agree on stripping Bashar Al-Assad of his title as president, replacing him with an interim figure appointed by consensus and tasked with supervising the talks between the different parties and coordinating the regional and international efforts in this regard. Meanwhile, Assad can remain responsible for governing the areas under his control and for representing those social strata and communities still loyal to him.
- If necessary, the parties should agree on a peaceful swap of territories and populations in an attempt to preserve the security of all communities and social strata.
- The parties should agree to invite peacekeepers drawn from neutral countries to monitor the agreed ceasefire lines and checkpoints, and to supervise movement and transport across the country’s borders as well as through its international airports and harbors, in order to prevent any breaches of the ceasefire agreement, facilitate mobility between the different regions, and prevent the flow of fighters and arms to and from the country except in accordance with agreements reached by the warring parties.
- During the interim period, each party to the conflict may maintain its fighting units provided it starts, gradually and in accordance to an agreed timetable, to deport all foreign fighters in the ranks.
- The parties should agree that the interim government should respect all agreements and conventions that the regime has signed up until this Initiative was made public.
- The parties should abolish hate and incendiary speech in their areas of control, should respect the sanctity of all religious shrines and temples as well as all historical monuments, and should guarantee the safety of all religious visitors and pilgrims coming from home and abroad.
From the perspective of international law, Syria is currently going through a civil war. This said, there is no use debating which party to the conflict is legitimate and which is not. Regardless of their behavior, each party enjoys a certain level of popular support. And given the fact that most parties rely to varying degrees on external logistical and financial support as well as on foreign fighters, there is no point engaging in mutual recriminations in this regard.
In practical terms, today’s Syria no longer represents a unified state. It has long turned into a number of warring regions, and our notions regarding how to end its conflict have to deal with this reality.
Today in Syria, there are areas controlled by the Assad regime though his army, Hezbollah troops, National Defense Forces and the Popular Committees, in cooperation with Shiite militias composed of foreign fighters from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.
Additionally, there are areas controlled by the Al-Nusra Front in cooperation with other Islamist battalions such as the Army of Islam and Jaish al Fateh (The Conquest Army), in addition to regiments of the Free Syrian Army. Almost each one of these groups and battalions has foreigners fighting in its ranks.
There are also areas controlled by the Islamic State (or Da’esh) which relies mostly on foreign jihadists. But it seems that Da’esh has recently succeeded in increasing the number of Syrians fighting in its ranks by focusing on recruiting minors, managing to gain the support of certain armed groups and by buying the loyalty of some destitute clans angry with the regime’s repression and fearful of Da’esh’s threats. Still, the vision for the future of Syria in which many of Dae’sh’s Syrian recruits seem to believe may not actually correspond with that held by Da’esh.
Finally, there are areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPGs) in cooperation with their allies, including units affiliated with the FSA, local Arab tribes and Assyrian armed groups. At this stage at least, the YPGs still maintain ties with local regime institutions, though they are capable of severing these ties at any given moment.
The borders between the zones controlled by these different parties remain rather malleable, and subject to change on an almost daily basis due to ongoing clashes. While opposition troops seem to have made some progress recently, the thousands of Afghan, Persian and Iraqi Shiite combatants Iran is said to have deployed in response may tip the scales once more creating a new balance on the ground.
Most parties to the conflict declare that Da’esh is a common enemy. However, the situation on the ground, the continuous fighting among these parties and their own particular partisan interests make some of them reluctant to coordinate efforts against Da’esh, preferring to avoid direct clashes with it, and on occasions, they even coordinate their actions against other groups with it. We are referring here in particular to those media and intelligence reports and analyses that speak of an obvious cooperation between Da’esh and the Assad regime. This situation has in the last couple of years enabled Da’esh to strengthen its position at the expense of all its opponents, including the regime.
The practice of declaring temporary truces here and there does not seem suitable to change this equation, because these truces consistently avoid tackling a number of sensitive issues including longer term relationships among the parties, and the way their respective territories should be governed.
Given the entrenchment of regional players supporting the conflicting parties in Syria fueling the ever-escalating confrontations, it is unlikely the conflict will end through military means or without international mediation.
Thus, the only way out of the current crisis lies in having the international players pressure the regional powers as well as the internal Syrian parties to come to an agreement on interim administrative arrangements for the country that could last up to 5 years. These arrangements should define clear ceasefire lines between the various regions, as well as clear cooperation guidelines covering different critical areas, especially security and economic issues and the nature of the local government in each region.
Peaceful land and/or populations swaps among the warring parties may also be necessary.
A peacekeeping force comprised of troops from neutral countries and dedicated to monitoring the temporary ceasefire lines may provide some assurance to the different parties enabling them to review their current stances and coordinate their fight against the common enemy: Da’esh.
The interim president may form an interim government representing the regime and various opposition groups and not only the National Coalition.
Such a government should respect all agreements and conventions that the regime has signed up until this Initiative was made public.
During the interim period, each party to the conflict may maintain its fighting units provided they start to gradually and in accordance with an agreed timetable deport all their foreign fighters. This demand may never be circumvented through naturalization and/or granting of residency permits to these fighters.
While the fight against Da’esh proceeds, representatives of various parties may launch serious negotiations about the final political, administrative, legal and constitutional status of the country, including the new form of government, the interrelations between different regions, the administration and constitutional arrangements on the national level, and transitional justice issues, among others.
It is necessary to explain here that establishing ceasefire lines between the different regions is not intended to divide the country. It rather aims at separating the warring groups and protecting the populations in their respective regions.
Despite its political doctrine which is not much different from that of Da’esh, the reliance of Al-Nusra Front’s on Syrian nationals to fill its ranks may complicate the relationship with it. While talking to the group’s senior leaders such as Abu Mohammad al-Jolani might be impossible, and indeed Al-Jolani himself seems to have dismissed such a possibility in his recent interview with Al-Jazeera, contacting lower ranking leaders, through some more flexible Islamic partners, might still be possible, if not necessary. Indeed, similar initiatives in southern Syria have recently led many combatants to abandon Al-Nusra and join relatively moderate groups.
While the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces does not currently have much influence on the ground, the wide international recognition it has garnered during the past two years makes its marginalization or exclusion difficult and not recommended, unless, that is, it willingly opted to exclude itself, for example, by boycotting the ongoing political processes, or by declining to meet with the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
On the other hand, and if the Coalition wants to strengthen its negotiating position, it has to keep in touch and improve relations with opposition and rebel groups acting inside the country in order to be able, in due course, to run the regions under their control. However, this is unlikely to take place or prove successful without the mediation of the regional powers supporting these internal groups.
Given the fact that the PKK-affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is currently in control of the predominantly Kurdish areas in the northeastern parts of Syria and that it is directly supervising the military operations of the People’s Protection Units (YPGs) and their allies, and despite the objection of the other Kurdish parties regarding certain PYD practices, it is impossible not to involve the latter in any serious talks on the future of the predominantly Kurdish areas in Syria, and their relations with the other Syrian regions.
With regard to the regime’s leaderships, including the open question regarding the fate of Bashar A-Assad, now that the regime has in effect become nothing more than another party to the ongoing conflict, it is recommended that discussing of their final status be linked to and delayed until the start of the transitional justice process. An agreement on the proposed transitional arrangements would not require the provision of a final agreement on such a controversial issue at this stage. On the contrary, the success of this agreement may require delaying consideration of this matter to a later stage.
A possible compromise between the position of Assad’s supporters and the opposition’s call for his departure might lie in stripping Assad of his title as president, replacing him with an interim figure appointed by consensus and tasked with supervising the talks between the different parties and coordinating the regional and international efforts in this regard. In this case, Assad will continue to govern the areas under his control and his ultimate fate will eventually be determined by the transitional justice process launched by the internal parties and their regional and international supporters.
It is worth mentioning here that the various evidentiary files collected by a number of international official and legal bodies documenting the various violations that Syrians have recently faced, in addition to the rights of the victims and their families to prosecute the perpetrators through certain international tribunals have prepared the ground for a transitional justice process that is independent of both the regime and the opposition’s will and influence. Assad’s ultimate fate as well as that of all other persons accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity will, therefore, be subject to the various international calculations and agendas.
This Initiative may represent a final opportunity for Assad to find proper exit for himself. Should he decline to show some flexibility and accept this proposed political process, granting a legal immunity from accountability would not be possible, and Assad he will have to spend the rest of his life living as a wanted fugitive wherever he goes.
In practical terms, Assad’s fate is no longer as important as it was in the past. If some opposition groups still find it difficult to see this reality, the coming weeks may unveil changes in this regard.
Additionally, this Initiative could also provide Iran, the only open regional supporter of Assad, with an appropriate exit strategy that would allow her to offer concessions without being considered by its regional allies as weak or wavering and without losing all its influence in Syria – a development that Iran would never accept anyway, and is a primary reason why we find ourselves in the midst conflict.
Such a solution may not be welcomed by those citizens who have suffered from Assad’s oppression over the last few years. Yet it represents the most viable step towards easing their sufferings in the short and long terms.
Putting certain Syrian regions and cities, such as the Christian townships and villages in Central Syria, the city of Al-Suwaida and the capital city of Damascus, under direct international supervision may represent be a suitable temporary measure pending the final political settlement among the parties. However, the international community may not be willing to support such a scenario unless the major powers become fully convinced that these parties are showing serious commitment to the content of this Initiative.
If the notable progress achieved recently by various opposition forces in Idleb, Dar’a, Qalamoun and Eastern Ghoutah is not enough to prompt the regime to accept the negotiation process proposed here, dithering may further weaken its negotiating position.
Declarations by some world leaders that a military solution is impossible in Syria will not make a big difference here, because the real actors in this conflict are based in the region, and most of which are currently acting in line with their own interests and visions regardless of international opinions. Moreover, the continuous large-scale destabilization of the state’s economy and institutional structures make them prone to a catastrophic collapse that could take place at any moment and that would negatively impact the lives of all Syrians, but in particular to those living in regime-controlled areas, supporters and opponents alike.
Scenarios for catastrophic collapse aside, if the flow of external military, logistical and financial support to various parties persists, the Syrian war may yet last for years to come. Yet, the recent trends of the conflict show that future confrontations will mostly likely take place within the regime-controlled areas, which have so far managed to evade the wide destruction witnessed by other regions. This means that the battles will soon affect the very social classes on whose continued support the regime is still relying. However, the continuing shrinking of regime-controlled territories is bound to erode this support, complicating a possible political settlement flinging the doors wide open for the worst scenarios.
Another important detail of which we should remain mindful in this connection is the fact that majority of the internally displaced Syrians have not fled the country but have headed to the regime-controlled areas, especially Damascus and the coastal regions. These people will be the most negatively affected if the battles move to these areas as expected.
If paving the way for such scenarios is indeed unacceptable to the Syrian patriotic forces, regardless of their political orientations, then each party is invited to reconsider its earlier views and stances on how to manage the conflict to realize its objectives, at least in the short run, and to engage in a serious political process that will soon demand, and undoubtedly so, major concessions from each party.
Some parties to the Syrian conflict, or some of their regional supporters, may not be willing at this stage to accept this Initiative despite the continued suffering of the Syrian people and the havoc that could still impact the entire region. Many of them may even regard it as a plan to dismantle the country and save Al-Assad, or an attempt to undermine the “achievements of the revolution.” However, the impending military operations that cold soon hit Damascus and the coastal region, bringing with them all different sorts of calamities may yet help change some of these views in the coming months.
However, if the points above are approved, the next step would call for organizing an extensive meeting to be attended by all regional and international powers supporting the different parties to the Syrian conflict. The meeting should discuss the details of the ceasefire lines between the different regions and on the best way for administering them in a manner that would respect and protect the rights and opinions of all. The participants should also determine the nature of the transitional arrangements among the respective regions as well as the size and structure of the proposed peacekeeping force. Following this meeting, focus could shift to managing the military operations against Da’esh, and on launching the negotiations on the final status of the country and on transitional justice.
A rough draft of this Initiative was put together on May 19th 2015, and presented on the sidelines of the Syrian opposition conference in Astana on May 24-27. the final version was made on June 5th 2015, and presented to the Russian government through the Russian Embassy in Washington, as well as to the office of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Mr. Staffan De Mistoura. Further efforts to promulgate the plan are currently being made. Special thanks go to Ms. Khawla Yusuf, Mr. Bassam Bitar, and to a number of Syria-based activists and opposition members for their advice.