I - SUMMARY OF DELIBERATIONS OF PARTICIPANTS PROSPECTS FOR GETTING BEYOND THE STALEMATE - Prof. Raymond Hinnebusch, Director, Centre for Syrian Studies
The Syria 2015 Conference, “Getting Beyond the Stalemate,” held several panels focusing on the prospects for a diplomatically-driven political compromise in the Syrian conflict. The panels included several internationally recognized experts on Syria or diplomats who had been involved in various capacities in consultations with the Syrian parties; knowledgeable Syrians responded with their own insights. While there was no consensus view, the deliberations suggested several alternative possible scenarios.
Scenario I: Geneva III. The majority view of conference panellists was that, despite the seeming existence for a long time of a “hurting stalemate” (in which neither side can realistically expect to “win”), , the moment, as of summer 2015, was not “ripe” for successful negotiations. However, a minority view was that Geneva III might, nevertheless, come about because of the activism of the UN special representative, Staffan de Mistura, as well as efforts by Moscow and Cairo to explore possible areas of agreement between the parties. Insofar as Geneva II failed chiefly because the regime had believed it had the upper hand and was therefore uninterested in making concessions, it seemed possible that, with Damascus now on the defensive and being urged by its patrons, Iran and Russia, to retrench and possibly to be more flexible, that regime obduracy might now be easing.
A split in the regime, more plausible in view of evidence of some infighting about regime elites, raised the prospect of increased pressure from within on the regime to seriously bid for a negotiated transition in which the remnants of the state/regime would share power with those elements of the opposition willing to strike such a deal. This would presumably involve a transition period of power sharing in which the role of Bashar al-Asad and his inner circle would be increasingly constrained and checked by some sort of balance of power on the ground as well as by international guarantees.
Working against this scenario, however, was the fact that the opposition now appears to believe that it has the upper hand; emboldened by regime setbacks, from Idlib, Jisr esh-Shaghour to Palmyra, as well as its increasingly apparent vulnerabilities, but even more so by the newly cooperating Sunni axis linking Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar, coordinating and backing the most militant jihadist elements against the regime, Asad’s enemies apparently now believed they had the momentum, could win militarily and saw no need for a compromise settlement.
Given the fact that the moment is not, seemingly “ripe” for a negotiated settlement, two alternative pathways seemed possible, protracted conflict and regime collapse.
Scenario 2: Protracted Conflict, Spheres of Influence: First, is the possibility that protracted conflict will continue since the expectation of victory by the opposition is unrealistic; the balance of power between regime and opposition has periodically shifted, without either side ever getting a permanent upper hand, since neither has the decisive combination of resources to prevail. Indeed, given that the conflict is now at least a three- sided contest among regime, opposition and ISIS, “victory” by any party seems all the more problematic. However, this deepened phase of conflict is likely to be one of increased spheres of influence in which regional actors increase their intervention and seek to consolidate secure territory cleansed of opposition forces. Iran and Hizbollah will seek to consolidate their position in Damascus, Kalamoun, western Homs and Tartous. Jordan and Gulf (and Israel) will support opposition FSA groups in Deraa and Qunaitra. Turkey and Qatar will support Islamist factions in the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo that seek to overrun the regime-controlled part of Aleppo city. IS will preserve its own state in the East, battling the Kurds, Islamist rivals and the regime. The de-facto separation of the country will harden.
Notwithstanding this, a second possible pathway is the fall of the regime. Nobody was predicting this outcome in the immediate future but regime vulnerabilities have become more apparent and many of its opponents appeared looking forward to such a “victory.” Supposing that the regime did suddenly unravel and collapse, it is not self-evident, however, what would follow and at least three possible pathways had some plausibility and evidence for them could be seen in the presentations at the conference.
Scenario 3: Democratic Transformation: First, for those who put their faith in the power and intentions of “moderate” Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood as well as in the discourse of the exiled National Coalition, which advocates a civil state, there was hope that regime collapse could lead to democratization, possibly with Islamic characteristics.
Scenario 4: A Caliphate: Other panellists, believed the more radical elements of the opposition had the upper hand on the ground, notably Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and various other jihadi groups, making a salafist/jihadist-dominated Islamist state—a “caliphate”—of sorts, the more likely outcome, although this depended on the fractured Islamist groups ability to share power or on the weaker groups bandwagoning with/and submitting to a dominant faction.
Scenario 5: Anarchy: A third possible pathway was fragmentation and deepened struggle for power. In this scenario, the regime might lose control of all or parts of Damascus, but, already considerably de-centralized and “militia-ized”, it and its various local components would remain active in the power struggle and would retrench to more defensive Western parts of the country. Rival jihadi Islamists, including the two al-Qaida avatars, Nusra and IS, would fall on each other in a struggle for dominance. Localized warlords and militias would attempt to defend their own turf, with the PYD in Kurdish areas the most successful. Considerably increased refugees flows, ethnic cleansing and destruction would accompany the power struggle.
At the time of the conference, the preponderance of evidence and opinion could not be said to be behind any one of the scenarios. Mixes of several of them were also possible.