Towards a realistic Peace Plan for Syria
(See note * about the timing of this article)
The conflict in Syria is vicious. Like in several North African countries in 2011 and 2012, fundamentalist Sunnis combat a relatively modern but oppressive state power.
Both Arab and Western regimes support the rebels. Their main objective seems to be weakening Iran's position. Meanwhile the people of Syria suffer and there is no prospect of a solution as long as Western countries continue their policy.
Peace is achievable if the alliance of the Syrian regime with Iran ends, and if in return it receives guarantees for its survival. Western citizens would do well to pressure their governments to start negotiations along this line.
The population of Syria consists of many different groups.
90% is of Arab descent but there are also Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Greeks, Kurds, Palestinians and Turkmens. In terms of religion most of the people are Sunni (74%) but there are also Shia (13%, among them mainly Alawites), Christians (10%) and Druze (3%).
Alawites are a minority that was being persecuted by Sunni rulers for centuries. The regimes of Syria and Iran in general are both addressed as Shia, but they are not much alike: in Iran the ayatollahs have a strong hold on society and politics. Socially and politically, the Alawites nowadays are mostly secular and modernized in comparison with the majority of the Sunni population in Syria and in most countries in the Middle East on the one hand and the regime in Iran on the other.
History of the conflict
The Syrian regime, under father and son Assad, has been anomalous in many ways. It has been more oppressive than some other Arab countries but in 2009 ranked better on women's rights than Saudi-Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Qatar and Morocco. While in Iran the regime is shaped by fundamentalism, in Syria it can be characterized as opportunistic instead. Since the falling apart of the United Arab Republic with Egypt in 1961 and the break up of the Baath unity with Saddam Houssein's regime, Syria runs a course independent from other Arab countries. It even follows it's own course vis-a-vis Israel.
Since it is in power, from 1970 onwards, the Alawite dominated regime takes firm action against Sunni opponents. Late 70s and early 80s there was an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1982 the reaction of the regime, under the father of the current president, culminated in a massacre in the city of Hama, when the army killed between 10 thousand and 40 thousand people. For some decades this has deterred further opposition and brought relative peace and some economical progress.
- Syria has much influence in Lebanon, and it has caused misery there, for example, the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005.
- Syria has weapons of mass destruction: chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. This poses a threat to Israel. This threat will increase if the Assad regime would fall.
- Syria is an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, the terrorist Shia movement in Lebanon.
- Hezbollah has acquired lots of missiles from Iran, partly through Syria, posing a growing threat to Israel.
- Iran is developing nuclear weapons and thus poses a threat to Israel and Arab countries (outside Syria)
- A war between Iran and Israel, possibly through Hezbollah, threatens world peace, which is one of the reasons that Western regimes oppose Iran.
- The rebellion in Syria is stimulated by Arab regimes, especially Qatar, to reduce the influence of Iran and to strengthen the position of Sunni against Shia Islam.
- Syria is a battlefield for Al-Qaeda style terrorists fighting against Assad. Many of them come from Yemen and enter the country via Turkey.
- Western powers and Turkey support the rebels to reduce the influence of Iran
- Russia supports the Syrian regime. Russia has important port facilities in the country and has commercial interests as arms supplier and investor. Besides Russia opposes expansion of Turkish influence in the region.
- China also supports the Syrian regim. It trades with Syria and has a large share in the oil industry. China sees Syria and Iran also as buffers against Western powers.
Assad’s regime oppresses all opposition in a cruel way, it has weapons of mass destruction and it allies with the terrorist movement Hezbollah and the fundamentalist state Iran.
The regime is depicted as the ultimate bad guy. Meanwhile the regime is not fundamentalist, but rather enlightened and modern. In the predominantly Sunni region the Alawite dominated regime faces hostility from domestic fundamentalists and countries in the vicinity. The current conflict is fought without mercy. This has by large increased the preexisting hatred between the population groups. Assad and his supporters lose everything should the rebels triumph, therefore the more the regime is jeopardized the bloodier the fight will get. The Assad regime has a chance to overcome the rebellion although this could take years. If the rebels defeat the regime things could get worse. A deadly persecution of the Alawites could follow and the suppression of Christians could worsen. Iran-1979 has shown that after seizing power fundamentalists show no mercy to the groups that helped them in the process of overthrowing the previous regime. Egypt showed similar developments until the army took control.
The USA have pushed their politics of bringing democracy to dictatorships too far. Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that even in the twenty first century democracy cannot be forced upon Middle Eastern countries resembling the way Germany and Japan were treated in the twentieth. The countries are different and the motives of the USA and other countries are distorted by the presence of oil in this region.
Like in other Middle Eastern countries before, the 'Arab spring' inspired both peaceful protesters and jihad fighters against Assad's regime. It reacted with a bloody response. Still this is no valid reason to support the rebels, since these are possibly even crueler.
At this moment the non-Muslim peoples already suffer from the savagery of Sunni extremists. The Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslim. They form the largest ethnic minority in Syria and have reasons to hate the Assad regime too, but they do not side with the rebels.
Since the beginning of the rebellion the country faces much more problems than Assad would have caused in decades. The population would have been better off without rebellion, and even now the population in general would be better off if the rebellion stopped. Many people are tired of the war.
Continued support to the rebels by Arab and Western regimes prolongs the misery. Peace is achievable when this aid stops. However, Arab and Western regimes will only do so when their purpose, limiting Iran's influence, is accomplished simultaneously.
Assad’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah works out both positively and negatively for Assad: it offers protection while at the same time it fuels the animosity against the regime. The Assad regime would probably be ready to break this alliance with Iran and Hezbollah if it was no longer necessary for its survival and when at the same time the rebellion collapses due to lack of support from abroad.
Peace negotiations will have to include:
a. Discontinuation of the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah – this way objectives of Arab and Western countries are met, without the need of pushing the country into further misery and/or foreign occupation.
b. Restoration of the domestic status quo that existed before the rebellion – stop the influx of weapons, foreign fighters and money in support of the rebellion - and reconciliation among the population.
c. Disposal of weapons of mass destruction – reduces tension with Israel
Insurgents have to realize that they will not win this war. International community should ensure this, using a military force that effectively supports the regime. Participants of the force may include NATO countries, Russia and China. The latter two participants would give Assad trust. Main task: controlling the borders.
This all should be subject of talks between the Syrian regime and the insurgents. The USA, Russia and China should play a key part in these talks. All six neighbors of Syria should also participate in the negotiations.
This plan offers a real chance for peace. But the Western regimes have so far brashly interfered with the Arab 'Spring' turmoil; they will by themselves not behave wiser with respect to Syria.
Therefore it is important that Western citizens pressure their regimes to work together to bring peace in Syria instead of more war.
André van Delft, Frans Groenendijk
We wrote this piece (except for the remark on Egypt) in June 2013, well before the chemical weapons crisis of August. We had not yet published it because we were looking for a way to publish it at a platform with a wide international audience. However, the developments are accelerating and in the wrong direction. That is why we publish our dissenting perspective here.
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