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Wednesday, March 1, 2017
- As the uprising in Syria becomes violently entangled with its neighbours, the expatriate opposition leadership is already formulating plans for a political transition following the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On Thursday, the United States Institute of Peace hosted an event entitled “Syria After Assad: Managing the Challenges of Transition”, at which panellists from USIP’s The Day After Project presented their transitional framework for a post-Assad Syria.
The panellists insisted that The Day After Project: Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria is an “evolving, growing document” that is meant to provide guiding principles instead of concrete policy recommendations. The report covers a wide range of transitional issues including the rule of law, transitional justice, security sector reform, Constitutional design, economic and social reconstruction, and electoral reform.
The Day After Project is comprised of 45 members of the Syrian opposition, drawn from the ranks of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Local Coordination Committees, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other independent and unaffiliated groups. It includes several individuals who have become well known in Washington circles, such as Murhaf Jouejati, Najib Ghadbian, Radwan Ziadeh and Rami Nakhla, but only a few of the opposition leaders in Syria itself.
In an attempt to foster consensus across varied political perspectives and avoid policy decisions that fall within the jurisdiction of future governments, the report avoids specific policy prescriptions. Instead, it recommends objectives such as “judicial independence”, “respect for the…diversity of Syrian society”, and “measures to facilitate macroeconomic stability” without addressing the formal structures or ideologies underpinning these principles.
Nevertheless, the authors of the report have incorporated a number of lessons from recent political transitions in the region. They stressed the importance of civilian authority over the army and the necessity of maintaining existing government structures without engaging in a process of “de-Baathifcation”, a lesson learned from neighbouring Iraq.
Assured that the demise of the Assad regime is forthcoming (panellists’ estimates of the regime’s lifespan ranged from a few months to one year), the report’s authors have launched a communications campaign to bring the findings of the report to activists working inside Syria, seeking endorsements from local groups to supplement the international recognition that the project has received.
But while the transitional plan has been endorsed by a number of international bodies and has received the official backing of the SNC and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, it remains largely unfamiliar to many Syrians on the ground.
The Conflict Expands
Despite their optimism for the distant future, the panellists were forced to admit that the “incremental gains the opposition made in the summer have slowed” and that the momentum of the early strikes in Aleppo and Damascus have turned into a prolonged and bloody stalemate.
Recent reports claim that the rate of Syrian army defections have “slowed to a trickle”, and at least one high-level Free Syrian Army figure appears to have defected back to the regime.
The stalemate has not prevented the violence from expanding beyond Syria’s borders. Turkish armed forces attacked several Syrian government positions on Wednesday after Syrian artillery troops shelled a Turkish town, events that led to further deterioration in relations between the two countries.
Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that he has no intention of allowing the conflict to escalate any further, thousands have been protesting in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul to decry the ruling AK Party’s “ugly provocation of war” with Syria.
The conflict is also drawing other disparate groups from both sides into its orbit. After the death of a prominent member of Hizballah in Syria, some analysts are predicting a “more explicit backing for Assad” that may tie the Lebanese organisation more closely to the regime.
Within the ranks of the opposition, questions have been raised about the growing number of opposition members with ties to right wing or Zionist organisations, including the affiliation of The Day After Project’s Rami Nakhla with CyberDissidents, a group funded by Sheldon Adelson’s Jerusalem-based Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies.
Envoys from both sides are also busily attempting to win new allies and legitimacy; a letter to Pope Benedict XVI from prominent opposition activist Michel Kilo requests a visit from the Pope to allay fears from Syria’s Christians that the uprising has taken a sectarian focus.
War Rages On
Meanwhile, dozens of Syrians were killed in a series of Al Qaeda-style suicide blasts in the Syrian city of Aleppo, an attack claimed by the extremist opposition group Jabhat Al-Nusra. The government has responded with mortar attacks, aerial strafing and sniper fire, reducing much of the ancient city to rubble.
Fighting in Damascus itself has ebbed significantly since the summer, although the rights organisation Human Rights Watch issued a statement today condemning the government’s abduction of prominent human rights lawyer Khalil Maatouk, who has defended Syrian activists in government courts.
“Maatouk’s apparent arbitrary and incommunicado detention would violate basic principles of international human rights law,” said the statement, calling on the government to “immediately release him if he is in its custody”.
The abduction has led to renewed calls from Egypt, the European Union and human rights organisations for Syria to release its thousands of jailed political prisoners. The intransigent response from Damascus will likely raise more calls for Assad’s departure at all costs.
As Syria continues to unravel and infrastructural and humanitarian responses become more critical, a plan for Syria’s future seems more important than ever. But it also casts a shadow of doubt over the viability of an abstract draft plan to rebuild Syria that sidesteps many of the same issues that have torn the country apart.