Syrian ‘peace game’: A lasting solution is a monumental task

PJ CrowleyBy PJ CrowleyFormer US Assistant Secretary of State

With the announcement on Wednesday that the US is suspending all non-lethal aid to opposition forces in northern Syria due to rebel infighting and increasing Islamist influence, peace seems increasingly out of reach. PJ Crowley, a former US assistant secretary of state and currently a professor of practice and fellow at the George Washington University Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, offers his take on the best achievable diplomatic outcome.


Three years into a brutal sectarian civil war in Syria, the only thing outside powers agree on is that there is no purely military solution to the tragedy that has claimed an estimated 120,000 lives, created perhaps three million refugees, and broken the country if not beyond repair, then at least for the next 25-50 years.

With no cavalry on the horizon to impose a solution on Syria, what might a “best possible” diplomatic solution look like? What would it take to get there, and how long?

These were questions posed by the United States Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy Magazine to a group of former national security practitioners and regional experts at a “peace game” earlier this week.

Generational struggle

Twenty teams played various roles, from outside powers such as the United States (I was part of the American team), Europe, Russia, the UN and key regional countries, to actors within Syria including the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and a composite of various Islamist extremists and Syrian civil society.

The bottom-line assessment: forces favouring the status quo outweigh those seeking a fundamentally different Syria, even if the conflict (or more accurately conflicts) continues indefinitely. In other words, the spoilers are winning, the reformers losing, and there is no comprehensive solution in sight.

Syria represents a generational struggle. Fighting could last another decade, with some parts of Syria stabilising sooner and others later, depending on the security and political calculations of various communal groups. While the peace game participants believe Syria will survive as a country, temporary autonomous enclaves for the Alawites, moderate Sunni opposition, and Kurds may be necessary to achieve a ceasefire.

There was little confidence the 22 January Geneva II peace negotiations would lead to a breakthrough. Syria may be less “ripe” for a resolution than it was a year ago. Mr Assad believes he’s winning, particularly after trading his chemical weapons to avoid an American military strike.

Nonetheless, diplomacy should be directed at finding common cause among the major interested parties outside Syria – the US, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Each has different views of an ideal outcome in Syria, but all share common concerns. No one wants to see the neighbourhood destabilise or Islamist extremist groups grow stronger and occupy meaningful chunks of Syrian territory.

The prospects for major power co-operation have been enhanced by the interim nuclear agreement. The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the world powers create an ideal channel to discuss Syria. Further progress on the nuclear front could open doors in Syria as well. Of course, the opposite is also true.

A major significant stumbling block is Mr Assad’s future.

Major adjustment needed

The US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey insist that Mr Assad relinquish power as part of any political solution. On the other hand, Russia believes only Mr Assad can keep Syria in one piece and defeat the extremists. Iran sees Mr Assad as an important regional asset and protector of Syria’s Shia and Alawite communities, which would undoubtedly suffer under Sunni rule.

Are these differences bridgeable? Yes, but it will require a major adjustment in Syria policy, creative diplomacy, political will and a deeper commitment to Syria than the Obama administration has shown over the past two and a half years.

First, the US needs to view Syria through the lens of security and counterterrorism. Representative and inclusive governance is the right long-term goal, but for the next decade, its primary focus must be containing the conflict, delivering humanitarian assistance and preventing Islamist extremists from gaining more territory.

Second, co-operating with Mr Assad is a non-starter, but convincing his constituencies (Alawites and Christians who back Mr Assad as a lesser evil) and Iran to push Mr Assad to step down will require security assurances during this transitional period. This is where establishing secure enclaves within Syria may be a necessary interim step. If Islamic extremists try to spoil a political settlement, the US should consider using air power under a UN Security Council resolution to reduce the threat they pose to Syrian civil society.

Finally, a political contact group should be established as a supplement to the Geneva process. Those countries with a meaningful stake in Syria’s future should participate, including Iran. Its purpose will be to ensure all borders to Syria are secure; end outside support to Islamic extremists; establish humanitarian corridors to ensure the flow of humanitarian assistance to all parts of Syria; support the return of refugees as conditions stabilise; and assist with the development of effective local governments.

The region has primary responsibility for resolving the Syrian crisis, but if the peace game revealed anything, nothing meaningful will happen without a greater commitment by the US.

Long-time antagonists can help achieve a “best possible” outcome in Syria. A first step is recognising that, as horrible as conditions are today, Syria can actually get worse.

We cannot afford to wait for a perfect solution.