Syria: the imperative of de-escalation

In this excerpt from the latest ECFR policy briefing on Syria, the authors argue that a rare moment of opportunity has emerged following the US-Russian agreement to launch peace initiative, Geneva II. Europe and the west should prioritise ratcheting down violence and the threat of regional spill over. 

As the death toll has risen and the Assad government has become more entrenched, so too have the calls for a more muscular western policy towards Syria. The debate has revolved around two models for managed military escalation: establishing no-fly zones or arming the rebels. Neither involves “boots on the ground”, which is why they can best be characterised as “intervention-lite.” Supporters of these policies argue that they will make Assad more likely to step down, empower the so-called moderates among the opposition, and bring the war to a speedier conclusion. However, there is considerable evidence for such approaches being more likely to lead to a full-scale military intervention by the west, while making a political solution even more difficult to grasp.

The dangers of “managed escalation”: the no-fly-zones option

Western governments have long faced calls to undertake air strikes to knock out the regime’s aerial firepower and to establish safe zones within Syria. Supporters of these policies have multiple goals, including tipping the balance in the military conflict in favour of the opposition, providing rebels with space to mobilise and organise, and creating safe havens for refugees in Syria, partially to relieve the strain placed on neighbouring countries.

However, it is unclear how much killing would be prevented. According to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, only 10 percent of opposition casualties result from air strikes. Moreover, safe zones could cement the collapse of the central state, and, given existing intra-rebel fighting, competing groups are likely to seek local control through violent means. As demonstrated by developments in some opposition-held areas in parts of northern Syria, this could render them anything but safe for the civilian population. As noted by António Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees: “Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas.”

Syria’s collapse accelerated by the establishment of safe zones would also pose a danger to the territorial unity of neighbouring states, fuelling, for instance, existing tendencies towards militia-run zones in Lebanon and Iraq, and thereby potentially feeding a series of regional civil wars. Additionally, the act of establishing safe zones would be an act of war against Syria, with the obvious dangers of escalation and mission creep.

At the moment, leaders in Washington, London, Paris, and elsewhere explicitly reject this approach, but it continues to be supported by figures such as US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as by vocal commentators in the press. In fact, a better option for dealing with the refugee and IDP crisis will be a political process that is predicated on de-escalation and maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity, among other things.

Arming the opposition

The second model, of arming the opposition, has stronger support in western capitals. British and French officials are currently suggesting that arming rebels represents the best means of getting the opposition (and their regional allies) to come to the table. Supporters of this approach argue that it should strengthen moderates within the opposition, increase their leverage over the regime, and therefore help a negotiated settlement. The emphasis since the 7 May announcement has been on integrating the logic of arming with the logic of the peace conference. Given the difficulties that the west has had persuading rebel forces to take part in a political process, this quest for leverage is understandable, but it is ill advised.

First, it is unrealistic to expect that weapons can be guaranteed to end up in the hands of pro-western actors. The US and its allies were unable to achieve the micro-management of weapons control in Iraq and Afghanistan, even with a massive physical presence there, so it is unlikely that they will fare better doing this with a light footprint. The apparent western conduit, the Supreme Military Council under General Salim Idris, has a limited remit over battlefield groups. This will be particularly challenging given that Jubhat al- Nusra – an organisation with declared ideological links to al-Qaeda – is now considered the strongest and most effective rebel fighting force.

Within Syria, more arms will also further entrench the political economy of war, already breeding warlordism, war profiteering, criminalisation, and intimidation as a way of life. There is a real danger that these weapons could find their way into sectarian tensions in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, supplying oxygen for the outbreak of an arc of sectarian conflict across the Levant. The other neighbouring countries – Jordan, Turkey, and Israel – are all also feeling the ripple effects in different ways. The weapons and those who carry them tend not to respect borders. Worryingly for western politicians, there is also the danger that they could even find themselves being used against civilian targets in the west. There is also the danger posed by a stream of radicalised Europeans travelling to Syria to join armed opposition groups and fears that they could eventually bring the fight back to Europe. According to the German government, as many as 700 Europeans are already fighting the Assad regime.

In any event, the west is ill-equipped to win a race to arm proxies, if its support for rebels prompts Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to increase their military backing of the regime. The procedures of western states are more transparent, cumbersome, restricted by regulations, prone to diplomatic opposition (from allies such as Israel), or domestic political fall-out than those of countries backing Assad.

Moreover, increased foreign support to predominantly Sunni rebels feeds Assad’s longstanding claim that Syria faces a foreign-backed Islamist plot, enabling him to further mobilise his domestic and international support base. Pro-opposition escalation is therefore likely to be met with escalation by the regime. Despite his military losses, Assad has not yet unleashed the full might of his military firepower and can still mobilise significant domestic support as demonstrated by the growing capacity of his popular militias, the jaysh al-shabi. With all the devastation already inflicted it is worth bearing in mind that neither side has yet “done its worst”. Further militarisation is likely to feed the “fight or die” narrative of existential communal fears that has become the driving DNA for much of this conflict. The sad truth is that escalations and interventions could still take the death toll from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands.

Above all, there is a real question about how far arming rebels and advancing diplomatic de-escalation really can proceed hand-in-hand. Rebels currently unwilling to engage in negotiations with the regime (distinct from accepting the regime’s political surrender, which they are prepared to do) are even less likely to do so once they receive western armed support. Some in Europe have argued that levelling the playing field will give the rebels the confidence they need to accept a negotiated settlement. However, the reality is that the opposition strategy has long been to secure western military intervention on their behalf as the key means of dislodging Assad – sometimes referred to as “getting Western skin in the game”.

Armed support from the west is therefore likely to embolden their ambitions of total victory – making them less likely to accept a power-sharing deal. It also mitigates against reaching a point of mutual exhaustion, a key potential asset in the search for a deal-making space. Given the choice, both sides will always try to convince external backers that their predicament is either sufficiently desperate or promising, so that more weapons and support remain the permanent imperative of the hour. When the lighter forms of intervention fail, as they are likely to do, they will increase the likelihood of a full-scale and prolonged intervention by the west – including a physical presence. This risks drawing the west into a much-expanded conflagration, as well as making the west responsible for reconstructing Syria for many years to come.

A strategy for de-escalation

While many analysts and diplomats acknowledge that military options are unlikely to succeed, diplomatic initiatives are often viewed as even more naive. An understandable sense of resignation pervades most discussions of Syria after the failures of the last two years. However, the 7 May Moscow announcement provides a real opportunity to shape an alternative diplomatic and political approach aimed at de-escalation. It is one that Europe should fully embrace.

The goal should be to set in motion a new dynamic in which external backers are nudging the two sides in the direction of politics rather than away from them. Given both the regime and opposition’s dependence on external support, this approach is more likely to eventually soften the zero-sum ambitions of the players in Syria. And the political overlay and context in which the fighting is taking place will matter greatly.

The Moscow statement by Kerry and Lavrov signalled a return to the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012 as a framework for progress. Under the circumstances, to have a text ostensibly agreed upon by key parties is a precious commodity. Following the initial Geneva agreement, the French and British foreign ministers quickly asserted that Assad would go as part of the agreed transitional government. But this time there should be no attempt to interpret Geneva as placing pre-conditions on talks or excluding parties from them.

Insisting on Assad’s removal and a full transfer of power may represent a morally appealing position for the main trans-Atlantic protagonists but it amounts to dictating terms of surrender and is antithetical to pursuing a diplomatic track with the Syrian regime or its backers. History appeared to be repeating itself when on 8 May in Rome, one day after ruling out pre-conditions in the breakthrough Moscow meetings, Kerry appeared to re-introduce them by saying that Assad could not be part of the transition, a position subsequently repeated by US President Barack Obama. Though understandable as a way to keep allies (including a suspicious Syrian opposition) on board, this is not a practical plan for building a wider international consensus. Building sufficient international consensus will also have to be predicated on taking a more inclusive approach that involves all the regional actors. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran was invited to the Geneva gathering in June 2012. This should be corrected this time around.

In order to succeed, a strategy for de-escalation will need three key elements: a set of guiding principles, a wide enough coalition committed to de-escalation, and a diplomatic strategy to get Geneva II off the ground.

Guiding principles

Ahead of the proposed peace conference, the US and Russia should elaborate on the Moscow understanding by translating that original Geneva Communiqué into five guiding principles for the proposed Geneva II peace conference:

1. “All parties must recommit to a sustained cessation of armed violence” (Article 5a of the original Geneva Communiqué). This might include reconstituting the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) as and when conditions allow. If it is possible to create rolling and expanding pockets in which ceasefires hold, the case for re- introducing UNSMIS should be given greater priority. It should be understood that the commitment to this principle comes first; its implementation, similar to other clauses here, will take time.

2. “Action Group members are opposed to any further militarization of the conflict” (Article 12b). Implementation of this clause would require that all sides agree to stem rather than increase the flow of weapons to Syria’s warring parties.

3. “The sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic must be respected” (Article 11a). There is a huge difference between a new political effort to which all sides have agreed, a key provision of which is that the territorial integrity of Syria will remain intact, versus a continued conflict in which Syria’s very existence is a point of contestation. A political process that clarifies this common goal is already important progress and a selling point for some of the regional players that will need to be brought on board for this diplomatic effort.

4. “The establishment of a transitional governing body that can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place, with the transitional governing body exercising full executive powers. It could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent” (Article 9a). Transition to a different order in Syria is key, though there can be no pre- conditions on what that new Syria will look like. It will have to be shaped by Syrians at the negotiating table. The central questions to be addressed will include: To whom and on what basis to transfer power? What is the role and timing of constitutional reform and elections? What type of elections should be held? What will Assad’s role be, including in any presidential vote? No agreed outcome can produce a return to the status quo ante of the pre-uprising Damascus government; any political process by its nature will favour change and reform.

5. “The Government must allow immediate and full humanitarian access by humanitarian organizations to all areas affected by the fighting” (Article 5d). Humanitarian aid is critically needed. As soon as there is a political opening, one of the first priorities should be to support greater access for humanitarian relief. A number of European Union member states as well as Norway have already taken the lead in humanitarian aid funding, with the top five EU donors being the UK, Germany, Holland, France, and Sweden.

The full report can be found here at the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

About the authors

Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations

Daniel Levy is Director of the Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.