Syria: Illusions of Peace

November 4, 2013 Topic: Security Region: Syria

Syria: Illusions of Peace

The troubles that will bedevil a negotiated settlement.

The Syrian Civil War has been raging for two years. Countless casualties have been sustained on each side, and the humanitarian problem continues to worsen.

So how do you end a civil war?

There are three potential outcomes: regime victory, rebel victory and a negotiated settlement. Currently, the last option is the championed outcome in the international context of the Syrian Civil War. Recently, the United States and Russia, reeling on the recent success of the chemical weapons deal, announced plans to convene an international conference to negotiate peace. Turkey, France and the United Kingdom, countries once considering military action, now support a peace settlement. Political pundits point to the example of Kosovo, as they argue for a quick, clean and negotiated peace. Respected strategist Edward Luttwak argued that a negotiated settlement would best serve U.S. interests. This option has appeal, because it avoids a messy military intervention. However, a negotiated peace is not risk-free.

Historically, negotiated settlements ending civil wars, are temporary at best. Angola, Sudan and Lebanon provide unfortunate examples of civil wars that were only temporarily halted by a negotiated peace. Another example, Kosovo is now relatively stable, but has been governed by a large, expensive, U.N. force for over a decade.

Why do negotiated settlements break apart?

Conflict reignites, because the issues that are at the root of the war are never truly resolved. Monica Duffy Toft, professor at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, argues that rebel victories result in a more stable peace in her book Securing the Peace, on civil war termination. Shouldn’t the choice be clear? Unfortunately supporting Syrian rebels is unpalatable, because of their fractious nature and key groups’ affiliation with Al Qaeda. Supporting Bashar al-Assad is equally unattractive, and unrealistic. Therefore, wouldn’t a negotiated settlement, even if temporary, best protect U.S. security interests?

A negotiated peace is not without problems. First, both Assad’s regime and Al Qaeda affiliates would continue to exist and be armed in some power sharing structure in Syria. Without the presence of a large peacekeeping force, which is unlikely with the lack of support and enthusiasm in the United States and abroad, each side would have little incentive to disarm and cooperate. Instead, these factions would focus on outmaneuvering each other for survival, rather than rebuilding Syria.

Second, a negotiated peace requires interested participants on each side. The Assad regime doesn’t seriously support negotiations, demanding that the rebels disarm as a precondition to talks. It is unclear if the opposition desires to negotiate at all. The complex web of rebel groups increases the difficulty of determining which, if any, have the authority to negotiate a settlement. Without substantial support, the ink may still be wet when the agreement is broken.

Third, a negotiated peace results in a fragile state. The connection between fragile states and terrorism is undeniable. The absence of effective governance provides the necessary environment for terrorist groups to recruit, train and operate. Lebanon provides a ripe example, as its government consistently teeters on the verge of instability, and Hezbollah operates openly. Somalia provides a more extreme example, where a centralized state structure has dissolved, and allowed terrorist groups to operate in a relative vacuum. There are security ramifications for the United States and region if Syria is a perpetually weak state. The United States should think twice about aligning with the rebels, which contain highly undesirable groups. Similarly, a victorious Assad would bolster Iranian ambitions in the region, and continue to provide Iran with a protected corridor from which to project power.

The third option, a negotiated peace, will require both commitment and resources, and does not guarantee success in achieving the United States’ security objectives. Pursuing a negotiated peace, playing the role of a peacemaker, is intervening. Although it lacks cruise missiles and smart bombs it is not inaction. It is a strategic decision. Determining whether that decision is a smart move depends upon weighing the pros and cons of all the options. There are no easy options or “clean” choices regarding Syria. The allure of a quick peace must be assessed with its potential blowback. Developing a longstanding peace is neither easy, clean, nor in the international community’s control. Policymakers must imagine the future strategic environment and resist the allure of imagined, instant gratification.

Stuart Montgomery is a researcher for the Center for a New American Security.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bo yaser. CC BY-SA 2.5.