In the sixth year of the Syrian civil war, “victory“ and peace are still all relative terms. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad holds the military advantage but lacks the capacity and resources to recapture and govern all of Syria. Even if a settlement is achieved, the country will probably see new elites and warlords wielding power and influence across the territory. At the same time, extremist groups are very likely to evolve and fight for power.
While there are no easy answers for the international community, short-term approaches that do not appreciate nuances of the conflict could bring more risks than opportunities. Western policymakers must acknowledge long-term obstacles to stable and effective governance in the country. In addressing these challenges, realism and pragmatism is very important. The negotiators should identify strategic objectives in accordance with their level of commitment to achieving them. This is especially important given the fact that since 2011, Western policy towards Syria has been undermined by a wide gap between rhetoric and action, poor communication with allies, and a lack of vision.
The absence of a coherent strategic vision and/or the political will to make it happen on the part of Western governments has contributed to the increasing strength and influence of extremist groups. These insurgent groups, however, cannot be countered by the military alone – without a political agreement to the conflict, tactical moves to fight extremist in Syria will fail.
Therefore, policymakers must align “top-down“ and “bottom-up“ measures since no national solution in Syria can be achieved effectively without the buy-in of local communities. To date, local-level, national-level humanitarian and governance initiatives have largely overlooked political issues while national-level peace initiatives have focused on political issues but without enough attention to local actors. Thus, a successful strategy must balance national and local-level priorities and concerns in order to cultivate the support of local constituencies.
‘Western Policy Towards Syria: Applying Lessons Learned’ – A Research Paper by a Team of Authors – Chatham House.
(The Commentary can be downloaded here)