Syrian opposition activists and rebels have recently reported that the bodies of dozens of military-age men had been found in a river in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo. The bodies suggest summary execution, and the rebels blame the killings on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The recent violence in Syria has now been described by UN Special Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, as being plunged into “unprecedented horror”.
In spite of these horrors and Assad’s apparent unbending stance, the recent prisoner swop with 2,000 prisoners incarcerated by the Syrian authorities in exchange for 48 Iranians held by the opposition suggests that there is some momentum for potential negotiations, but it would need serious muscle to get behind this. The release of prisoners was orchestrated by Turkey and Qatar, which also implies Saudi influence and suggests the Gulf states are going to be crucial players in the resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Tragically, the violence in Syria has been fuelled right from the beginning, not only by domestic politics, but the regional geopolitical rivalries. The scene was already set as a result of key dynamic in the rivalry been Iran and Saudi Arabia. This will be a crucial element in defining the future shape of the region. The shift in the regional dynamic has been precipitated by the strengthening of Iran’s influence in Iraq as a result of the contribution western governments played in deposing the secular minority government in Iraq in 2003. There are now much closer links between Iran and Iraq as a result of the war, which has opened the door to the return of Shiite power in Baghdad.
This change is hard to accept or the Saudis, but war is not the only solution. A new modus vivendi may need to be established, in which Shiism would have to relinquish its minority domination in Syria in exchange for its majority influence in Iraq. But if this Syrian/ Iraq domestic redistribution of power is to be achieved without future fighting, an accommodation will have to be found, in which there is genuine participation for minority groups in each country. Whilst, in Iraq, the Shiite management will have to find a genuine modus vivendi with the Sunni minority, the Shiite minority will have to do the same with future Sunni dominance in Syria.
But if this is to be achieved peaceably, quiet behind the scenes mediation by credible mediators will be required to engage both Iran and Saudi Arabia to prepare the ground for what an end of conflict could look like. One of the key objectives would be to avoid a major confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran, which would lead to a major clash of Sunnis and Shiism along the Tigris and the Euphrates.
A more formal negotiating process, between the US and Russia with some possible input from China will also be necessary. This could help prepare international support for the new architecture. A second level would be needed to follow up on the informal negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as they would be regional guarantors of the emerging new architecture. Once progress is being made at those two levels, the third level of negotiations among Syrians would have a better chance of succeeding – not least because the flow of money and weapons, both to the government and the opposition, will have been addressed.
Whether President Assad stays or remains needs not to be a precondition, but rather a result of the negotiations, and an outcome of an agreement by the parties. The regime is currently holding together, because those who have supported the state have nowhere to go and therefore might as well fight until the end. The silent majority in Syria trust neither side to protect their interests, and the Syrian National Council has not fleshed out a secure vision for the future. So far, they have stated that an amnesty will be offered to only those who do not have blood on their hands, which does little to reassure the majority of the people.
Nevertheless, domestic negotiations between the rival groups will have more chance to be convened and succeed, when all different Syrians groupings will be aware of an understanding reached by Moscow and Washington, and even more so of an understanding reached by Tehran and Riyadh. The two non-Syrian tables will contribute to avoiding the spreading of a conflict well outside the borders of Syria, which is the real danger within the current fighting. Neither the US nor Russia have much to gain from a larger, on-going regional bushfire, which could implode into a much larger war.
Today’s Syria was invented by the colonial powers and, indeed, is the fruit of the Sykes Picot 1916 agreement, of Gertrude Bell, carving out of Iraq, and of WW1. A century later, things are looking different. Not only is the architecture of the Cold War removed, the Levant over the last 50 years or so has seen a decline of the influence of major outside powers and an increased activism of the Gulf States. One of the features of earlier colonialism was the support of minority leaderships when redrawing the regional map. This is no longer acceptable.
Part of any future agreement in Syria will involve the redistribution of power, where minority groups would no longer monopolise the lives of the majority. Accommodations will need to be encouraged, in which there is genuine participation that spans across sectarian divisions. Such participation will require a political vision that addresses the fate of the Baath party, the army rank and file, the public sector employees, sectarian violence and transitional justice.
There is a real risk the conflict is ‘balkanising’, and it becomes less and less possible to talk about national solutions. This is why it may now require the redrawing of the political architecture of the Levant, which this time, would be written, not by the early colonialists, but by the inhabitants of the region. Those involved in mediation would need to encourage a different kind of culture, in which the inevitable regional changes are not brought about by hostility and body bags, but where the people can define themselves without killing one other.
Giandomenico Picco is Advisor to the Oxford Research Group and Gabrielle Rifkind is Middle East Programme Director at the Oxford Ressearch Group. They are Co-Authors of the book, ‘The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Peace-Making’.