Russia Must Bring Assad, “Pragmatic” Opposition to Table to Set Safe Zones

Alexander A. Decina
Research Associate, Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Jesse Marks
Peace Fellow, Stimson Center

Early last month, Russia put forward a “de-escalation” plan for Syria under which major opposition-held territories in western parts of the country, including northwestern Idlib province, northern Homs countryside, the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, and parts of southern Syria, would become safe zones and fall under ceasefires to be enforced by the so-called guarantors — Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Even though neither the Syrian opposition factions nor their Western or Persian Gulf backers have accepted the plan, the three guarantors declared these safe zones to be in effect as of May 5.

The agreement has reduced violence along Syria’s western spine during the last month, and further negotiations about specific boundaries and the details of the implementation of these safe zones are supposed to be held. However, the plan has a crucial pitfall. Without a realistic framework for peace agreed upon in direct talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and pragmatic groups within the opposition, Syrians on both sides will be unlikely to maintain the ceasefires, and these safe zones will inevitably collapse. Such a framework needs to reckon with the undeniable reality on the ground – both Assad and the opposition will remain forces in Syria for the foreseeable future.

Bridging the Gaps

Although the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime have negotiated indirectly with outside powers, they have not engaged in direct talks to date. Gaps between the two sides are currently too wide for meaningful dialogue. Assad has not relented on his mission to recapture “every inch” of Syria, and the opposition meanwhile continues to insist that Assad step down.

Neither of these positions comports with reality. Whether Assad likes it or not, the opposition will likely remain a force in Syria for the foreseeable future. His manpower shortages and Russia’s proclivity for a diplomatic settlement make the prospects of his retaking the entire country dubious at best. Despite the demands of the opposition and its backers, Assad will likely remain as well. Objections to his staying are understandable given the regime’s heinous crimes, but there is no reason to believe Assad will negotiate his own departure or that his backers will be willing or able to force him from power. The alternative, an attempt to violently oust Assad by the opposition’s backers, would precipitate a war far more violent than the first six years of conflict.

Making the two sides accept these realities and sit across from one another is the first obstacle to solving the conflict. Russia is unlikely to force Assad to negotiate his departure, but it may be more willing to pressure him to participate in direct talks. Given the time and effort Russia has expended in diplomatic maneuvers to negotiate a settlement, Russia would likely welcome a Syrian-Syrian dialogue. Assad’s refusal would embarrass Russia on the international stage, where Moscow continues to present itself as an arbiter of Syria’s diplomatic future. Russia could condition its support for Assad on his engaging directly with the opposition, and it could refuse crucial aerial support to regime efforts to retake crucial opposition territory in Idlib, Dara’a, and elsewhere.

Overcoming the opposition’s obstinacy will be more challenging, in no small part due to its backer’s promulgation of the false hope of Assad’s removal. If opposition groups continue to refuse to negotiate with the regime and refuse to relent on hardline positions, Washington and its allies should restrict the flow of material support. Instead, if opposition groups engage in direct negotiations and invest in a practical approach, the U.S.-led coalition should provide them greater support to fight ISIS and extremists in their own ranks and to rebuild the country. As pragmatic groups gain strength, perhaps more of the opposition will be spurred to support a political settlement rather than continued militancy.

A Framework for Decentralization

If the two sides can accept these realities and adopt mutual recognition, tense as this may be, they can advance toward a negotiated settlement. Such a settlement could be based on the principles of decentralization – that is, Damascus ceding political and economic authority to localities, many of which would be controlled by opposition groups.

A legal basis for decentralization already exists in Articles 130 and 131 of the Syrian constitution and Legislative Decree 107 from October 2011. These measures recognize – at least on paper – the legitimacy of elected local councils in Syria’s provinces, cities, municipalities, and towns.

However, the current legal structures are insufficient for a comprehensive settlement between the opposing parties. For one thing, the local councils all fall under provincial governors appointed by the President, an arrangement opposition groups will surely reject. Further, opposition groups have no reason to trust that Assad will uphold such constitutional measures, and they will undoubtedly be reluctant to disarm in the foreseeable future.

A stronger model for decentralization, negotiated in direct talks between the regime and the opposition, is needed. Details can be finalized at a later stage, but both parties must agree on a framework and general principles to produce sufficient Syrian buy-in for Russia’s de-escalation plan to have a chance at success.

Building on Russia’s Plan

Russia’s de-escalation plan could serve as the starting point for a decentralized Syria. It recognizes pragmatic elements of the opposition as potential partners, legitimizes the territory they hold in various parts of the country as safe zones, and forces Assad to relent on recapturing the entire country by force. However, as it stands, Russia’s plan is insufficient.

Even beyond its lack of Syrian-Syrian dialogue, Russia’s plan has two critical, but not insurmountable, shortcomings. First, there is insufficient international participation in the plan, especially given that Turkey is the only pro-opposition guarantor. That said, Russia is eager to gain U.S. support and has welcomed greater U.S. involvement, so Washington likely has sufficient leverage to address this deficiency. It could push for the United States and Jordan to be added as guarantors, which would be particularly crucial in the south, where Turkey has little if any influence.

Second, the plan requires the removal of “terrorist groups,” but it lacks clarity on which groups are considered terrorists and how these groups will be removed. Viable partners must be identified within the Syrian opposition, which is no easy task, and they would need substantial support in fighting extremists within the opposition. If there can be a Syrian-Syrian dialogue on a general framework, then it will be easier to identify pragmatic groups (i.e. ones that accept the unfortunate reality of Assad staying in power) that can serve as these viable partners. If this builds momentum, and more groups join the pragmatist camp that wants to be part of a negotiated future, then it will become easier to separate the extremists from the rest of the opposition.

If Russia and other international powers address the de-escalation plan’s flaws and push for direct talks between the regime and the opposition in order to create a framework for peace, then it can see some success, perhaps leading to a comprehensive solution. However, Russia’s plan must be seen as a first step, rather than a solution in and of itself. Any attempt to treat it otherwise and circumvent Syrian-Syrian dialogue or the shortcomings of the plan should be met with skepticism.

The Author is Alexander A. Decina

Alexander A. Decina is a research associate for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has previously worked in think tanks and NGOs in Lebanon, and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Coauthor is Jesse Marks

Jesse Marks is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Stimson Center, where he principally works with the Protecting Civilians in Conflict program. His primary research focus is civilian protection, stabilization, and peacebuilding in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. He has published analyses with the Hill, Huffington Post, and the U.S.-Middle East Youth Network. Prior to joining Stimson, Marks interned with the Migration Policy Institute in the international migration program and... Read More

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