Editor’s Note: Mouaz al-Khatib is founding and former president of the Syrian National Coalition and a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
It’s not easy to defuse a crisis complicated by tens of thousands of foreign fighters, many affiliated with ISIS, over 100,000 Iranian-sponsored militiamen, and the armies and intelligence agencies of myriad states. Nor can the horrific humanitarian crises plaguing many Syrian refugee and internally displaced persons camps, where aid gets siphoned off and manipulated by the Assad regime, be easily managed. One trembles to hear every few days of children freezing to death and parents burning themselves or killing their children out of humiliation, poverty, and hunger.
Score-settling between Iran and Israel, Turkey and the Gulf, and the US and Russia stands to come at an inestimable cost for Syrian civilians. As bad as that already is, the clashing is not limited to geopolitics. The first shots of the war over reconstruction spoils have already been fired; over time, their blasts could drown out even the din of Russia’s military assault on civilian-packed Idlib, already underway.
Inside Syria, unbearable misery is omnipresent nationwide amid rising opioid addiction, high crime rates, and a pervasive lack of security. A recent sobering study found that over 40% of Syrian refugee children no do not attend school.
But while previous diplomatic and political initiatives have failed to end Syria’s suffering, history offers a potential roadmap.
The Rwandan, Bosnian, and even Polish experiences could inspire a reasonable solution for Syria: Poland-style roundtable talks bringing together ruling elites and opposition and grassroots leaders, for example, have not been seriously explored but should be considered.
Syria is one mighty tragedy, but tragedies are bound to eventually end. Mustering the international political will for a solution can nudge the Syrian tragedy closer to a solution. One way to do that is through the adoption of a pre-transitional phase centered on a pre-transitional presidential council to be established by mutual consensus. The six-member PTPC could include President Bashar al-Assad, but would acquire his powers within a year. By the end of the established time-frame, Assad would be completely transitioned out, a condition without which the bloodletting would not stop.
Such a negotiated council could lay the groundwork for stabilization by releasing political detainees, issuing a general amnesty, and ensuring a proper environment for political talks. While accommodating Russian fears about total state collapse, it would restructure the military and intelligence agencies. Municipal elections, followed by parliamentary elections under international monitoring, could follow, allowing Syrians to finally choose a new constitution. A new parliament could elect a new president, who would dissolve the pre-transitional council and establish a transitional justice process, to help Syria confront crimes committed during the war, and a truth and reconciliation commission to pave the way for a new dawn for Syria.
Why would Assad agree to any of this? He probably would not, but his sponsors, especially Russia, have an interest in pressuring him to get on board with such a face-saving initiative before Syria completely disintegrates and all end up losing. I know from my own outreach that pressure could also come from within the regime. If encouraged, goaded, and offered a credible alternative, the scale of the Syrian catastrophe may yet prompt leaders within the regime to overcome their fear of meeting with opposition leaders for frank discussions in search of a common way out before their whole ship goes down. Equally important, such an initiative has the potential to galvanize grassroots support across the Syrian divide and bring Syrians from across the spectrum together.
The failure of all other avenues means a path like this one could succeed.
Previous diplomatic proposals, including the tortured Geneva process, have failed to bridge the gulf between conference rooms and the crushing realities on the ground. Eight years on, a political solution does not seem near; rather than focusing on a governing body to transition Syria away from dictatorship, Syrians are being distracted by a constitution-drafting committee that will do nothing to stanch the bleeding. Some UN envoys to Syria have performed disgracefully, operating as little more than mail carriers without any creativity, and humoring the states that dominate the war-torn country without a credible proposal to see Syrians through their ordeal.
Meanwhile, Syria slips away.
The Assad regime is fast decaying. Pro-regime social media sites clearly show the extent of frustration among regime loyalists on whose behalf the regime declared a hollow “victory” only to lose its own supporters by failing to provide the most basic services. Things do not look better in opposition-controlled areas, either, where civilian-run councils are hobbled by lack of support and burgeoning military factions – greedy for money and power. These treacherous conditions have recently prompted the head of the Syrian Opposition Interim Government, Dr. Jawad Abu Hatab, to tender his resignation.
While maintaining unfettered levels of military, diplomatic, and political support to Assad, the Russians have placed before the Syrian political opposition the daunting challenge of competing in presidential elections two years away, a suggestion I’ve heard in conversations with senior Russian officials. The Syrian opposition, in the meantime, preoccupies itself by jostling over tiny crumbs of “power” they hope to gain from future unempowered positions, with many opposition groups in the Astana and Sochi conferences operating more as expressions of regional agendas than as a national Syrian project.
All competing powers are seeking to turn a catastrophe to their advantage with no regard for the Syrian people. Russia seeks to reassert itself on the world stage as a superpower and to build up its influence in the Middle East; the Iranians are playing a long game to reach the Mediterranean by entrenching themselves politically and socially in Syria; the Israelis lobby tirelessly for recognition of their annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights; Turkey seeks control over northern Syria fearing Kurdish separatism; the Kurds seek an independent entity; and the United States seeks continued military presence. Syria has become a cauldron for strategic conflicts pitting state and sub-state actors with competing interests against each other. The bill is footed by Syrians.
But this does not have to be Syria’s kismet.
Such an approach, to move toward a new government following historical models of conflict resolution and post-conflict transition, based on intra-Syrian outreach and communication, buttressed by coercive international diplomacy, especially by the United States and Russia, could bring Syria back to life from its dying gasps. A credible road map is the only guarantee for arresting state collapse, stopping the brain drain and capital flight, and encouraging Syrians to return to help rebuild their country. Neither Bashar al-Assad’s recent speech that all is well in Syria, nor the unceremonious visit to Iran that was arranged for him will keep Syria from going down an abyss spawned by fifty years of fascist rule.
Many countries have come apart only to return much stronger, their people born anew thanks to the lessons they learned from their bitter experiences. The Syrian people are known for their entrepreneurship and vim and vigor; they certainly deserve to see their country return to life. Getting there will not be easy, but it is not mission impossible.