Syria`trial case’ for `guided’ Arab Awakening
Don’t squander opportunity.

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It is not a `good news’ that the United States and Russia have cut off negotiations on Syria accusing each other for break-down of the short-lived ceasefire and the human tragedy that ensued.

Further rupture in their relations cannot be allowed as Syria is a `trial case’ that has prospects, how meagre they may be, of success for “guided” Arab Awakening, which failed everywhere else in the region.

There is hence a lot at stake for the World community to make the Syrian experiment a success story. For that to happen, the two powers must get their act together and renew their efforts to keep the negotiations going. There is no other alternative.

Principles to guide further negotiations on `transitional government’

Following is an attempt to analyze the principles on which there is clear consensus, those where some compromise is possible and rest which need to be adjusted to address core concerns of regional players.

From this exercise emerges a `plan of action’ that will see the transition from the Assad regime and elections based on a new Constitution keeping all religious and ethnic groups on board.

Our analysis of sorts is made factoring in the ground covered by the UN-led peace conferences and other initiatives of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, notwithstanding their contradictory positions.

Areas of Consensus

  • Commitment to the sovereignty, independence, national unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic, as enunciated in the UN Geneva Communiques and reiterated by relevant parties.
  • To facilitate the launch of a Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and enables them independently and democratically to determine their own future.
  • No place for terrorist organisations, ISIL and Al Qaida, in the negotiations. ISIL is a common enemy that must be fought unitedly, and decimated.

Areas Requiring Compromise

  • The Russian and American camps are not on the same page on the future of President Bashar al Assad. Rebel forces, supported by the US and their regional allies, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, etc., want him to go before transitional government is formed while Russia and Iran bent upon preserving his rule until people have a chance to decide for themselves. Russian and Iranian case rests on the tragic consequences the world has had with the forceful change of leadership in Iraq and Libya. There are signs that the US and its allies including Turkey are now open for longer stay of Assad in power. Even the Syrian opposition groups, which met in Riyadh and formed `Higher Negotiations Committee’ in December 2015, appear to be not averse to the proposition with some conditions.
  • Some of the more militant groups among the rebel forces, like Jaish al-Fatah, Ahrar al-Sham etc., are considered terrorists by the Syrian regime, backed Russia and Iran, and hence are valid targets along with Al Qaida group, Jabhat al Nusra (now re-named itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham). Notwithstanding initial reservations, Secretary Kerry was said to be talking to the opposition groups to separate themselves from al-Nusra. It is easier said than done as all these groups are so embedded in a loose command structure. However, there were indications of softening of the position of the rebel groups during the Riyadh conference about their association with al-Nusra but this needs to be followed up with sufficient political and financial incentives to wean them away.

Areas of No Compromise

  • Any proposal of autonomy or expansion of territory by Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northeastern part of the country would not be acceptable to Turkey, which considers the PYD as an extension of the PKK, and would fight it `tooth and nail’.
  • PYD’s fighting arm, Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) is by far the best fighting force in Syria which is determined to uproot IS from its strong holds in the north and deny it access to Turkey. YPG is allied with both US and Russia which are actively backing them in their fight against the IS. Rewarding the Kurdish forces without displeasing the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demands a thinking cap.

Plan of Action

Once we recognize what is possible and what needs to be worked on further, it becomes easier to propose a `plan of action’. Negotiations driven by Syrian factions themselves are a non-starter as both sides are backed by powerful external forces.

Hence, the guiding principles for a negotiated settlement must provide for accommodating some concerns of these external forces as well. The US and Russia need to guide them at every stage.

Negotiations for `transitional government’ may start immediately without insisting on `ceasefire’ as a pre-requisite. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran need to encourage the opposition forces to participate in the talks as their concerns are being addressed.

Stage I – A Three-Year Transitional Period

  1. Bashar al-Assad will remain President during this period enjoying full powers but with some mutually accepted restrictions though.
  2. Leader of the combined opposition forces will be chosen as Prime Minister.
  3. Council of Ministers are chosen from both sides with balanced distribution of portfolios. For instance, Defense Minister can be from the regime side while the Interior and Finance portfolios could be given to the opposition.
  4. War Council, comprising the President, Prime Minister, Ministers of Defense, Interior and Finance besides Commanders of the Syrian/rebel Forces, the US and Russia, would oversee the fighting to decimate the ISIL and AQ.
  5. Rebel forces remain a separate entity outside the army under their own joint commander but work under the authority of the War council and in coordination with the Army. They would be merged with regular army at the end of the transition period. The war council will work out the procedure for the merger. Those who do not volunteer to join the army or not qualify for military service would be disarmed.
  6. Constitutional Committee may comprise of about seven members from each side besides Observers/Advisors from the US and Russia. Democratic and secular structure may be the guiding principle while drawing the Constitution.
  7. Transitional Assembly of about 100 members drawn equally from both sides will approve the constitution.
  8. Reconstruction and Rehabilitation measures to be undertaken immediately in all the areas under the control of the transitional government and those seized from the ISIL and AQ. All the areas under the regime and the opposition groups will form one single administrative unit with sub divisions. Peoples Councils, currently in-charge of local administration, will be recognized as elected councils and all the developmental and rehabilitation work would be carried out through them with proper oversight mechanism under the UN.
  9. Kurdish areas will also enjoy such decentralized powers but not full autonomy to satisfy Turkey. They deserve to have better representation in the central government, particularly their women wing who have shown exemplary valour in fighting the IS.
  10. Extensive training programs to be arranged for the new bureaucracy on the constitution, governance and financial management.
  11. Friends of Syria commit the funds required during the transitional period.

Stage II – Elections and Referendum

The end of transition period will see the drafting of new constitution and bring a semblance of peace and tranquility with slow decimation of ISIL and AQ. Fair and transparent elections as per the new statute will also serve as a referendum under the watchful eyes of international observers.

  1. President will be elected directly by all the people; Assembly elections could be based on separate electorates, share of each Electoral College determined by the Constitutional committee and not necessarily on the basis of the share of the population.
  2. Legislature could be bi-cameral; Lower House of about 100 members representing different ethnic and religious groups on the basis of separate electorates while the Upper House of about 50 members elected by local councils.
  3. Leadership positions of important constitutional divisions, such as the Assembly Speaker, judiciary, Attorney General, etc., may be shared among all religious and ethnic communities to give a sense of equal participation, which again need not necessarily be on the basis of share of the population.
  4. Bashar al-Assad can also contest the election. Even if he loses the election, he shall enjoy complete immunity from prosecution for any acts committed prior to the transitional government.

Stage III – New Government formed

The third and final stage of the all-inclusive action plan for a rejuvenated Syria will be the formation of a new government with a five-year term.

  1. The US and Russia would continue to guide the new government in Damascus so that different groups work in tandem and terrorist groups are completely wiped out.
  2. Friends of Syria may continue to provide funding though at much reduced level.

The above is only a suggested model which can form a starting point for negotiations. What is important is that negotiations should go on, without any interruption, for a transitional administration.

India and other emerging powers have a role too

India and other emerging powers need to extend all possible support to the two `big powers’ and warring factions to focus on negotiations to set up the `transitional government’.

India has been a close friend of Syria and it was among the first, as part of the IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) initiative, to launch a peace initiative in August 2011 for a national dialogue and political reforms to address legitimate aspirations of the people of Syria. This was reiterated by its External Affairs Minister while addressing the Geneva II Peace conference in January 2014.

Prime Minister Modi and his Ministers have extensively toured the Middle Eastern countries in the last two years re-energizing traditional relations with all countries of the region. A `special envoy’ to the Middle East may serve its interests better not only to coordinate on regional issues but also intensify closer bilateral relationship.