Peace for Syria Feasible with Rebel, State Solution

Sean Para, Columnist

The maelstrom that has engulfed Syria continues to reach new heights of violence. Recent attacks by the Islamic State in Paris, Beirut and the Sinai Peninsula have added a sense of urgency in bringing a resolution to the conflict. The refugee crisis also stems partly from the Syrian Civil War — yet another global problem born out of what originated as an internal conflict. Syria is so fractured that many doubt whether it will survive as a unified state. The only way to break this cycle of violence and preserve some semblance of Syrian territorial integrity is a negotiated solution that allows for both rebel groups and the Assad regime to exist within a common federal political space. Such an agreement would need the support of all the foreign powers that have entered the war. Only if there is a peace settlement in Syria that brings an end to the civil war will the Islamic State be destroyed.

Russian military intervention has changed the calculations of all involved, effectively assuring that the Assad regime will stay in power. The U.S. has in turn expanded its support for its allies in northern Syria to form a new alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, composed of a coalition of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and other groups operating against ISIS in northern Syria. The twin wars against Assad and ISIS have further contributed to the chaos as the U.S. backs rebels who wish to fight Assad despite the American commitment to destroying ISIS.

As strange as it is to imagine the opposition and the government coming to an agreement given the scale of the atrocities that have been committed by both the government and some rebel groups, a peace treaty is possible. The 1995 Dayton Accords that established Bosnia and Herzegovina are a relatively recent example of such an accord that established a durable peace. The accords called for the establishment of a federal republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, out of the two warring sides of the Bosnian War. The Bosnian and Serbian republics function as autonomous entities within a weak federal state. The situation continues to this day, and although there are tensions and it is not a perfect system, it is far better than war.

A peace plan for the Syrian civil war would require all the major foreign actors of the war to pressure their respective proxies to come to the negotiation table. Therefore, this involves Russia and Iran on the regime side and the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the gulf monarchies on the opposition side. The fractured nature of the non-ISIS opposition makes negotiating a binding settlement that would be difficult to achieve. However, if that opposition’s benefactors can bring enough major groups to the negotiating table, a critical mass for a rebel negotiating team could come into being.

Once a rebel negotiating team is assembled, the next phase would be hammering out which provinces would remain in rebel hands under a federal system. Three major groupings of nongovernment territory are clearly visible. One block of territory in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces, another block in southern Syria and a third along the northern border. These three regions could be viable autonomous states within a federal Syria. The islands of rebel control that dot other parts of Syria could also be granted autonomy in this war. The Assad regime would then hold on to power during a transitional period while a new constitution was created. One could imagine a federal government that retained control of foreign and economic policy while granting autonomy in most matters to the above-mentioned regions. Once peace returns to the rest of Syria, it will be possible to destroy the Islamic State. A multi-factional force would be necessary to drive ISIS from its current areas of control – these regions would then be turned into federal entities on the model of the other rebel regions.

This proposed plan is certainly dependent on a lot of things going right in a conflict where so many things have gone wrong. Syria is certainly a long way from peace and I am not pretending that this is a likely scenario for peace. A peace accord will need the full support of the international community and the world powers — but I argue that peace is possible — that the violence can end. Similarly bloody conflicts, like the Russian and Spanish civil wars, did ultimately end with largely unified countries. Let us hope that fragmented Syria will also be able to survive its civil war.