The UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will meet US and Russian negotiators on Friday to discuss his peace plan for the country. But Bashar al-Assad’s speech, delivered last week, has probably spelled the end of the Brahimi initiative, at least in its present form. What amounted to a dismissal of the plan by the Syrian president has actually created a sense of relief in some segments of the opposition, which feared that the international community was doing deals at its expense. It is important to understand why this is the case if any future plan for a negotiated exit from the crisis is to have a chance of success.
First, Brahimi makes no mention in his plan of the future status of the presidency or security services, the only two real centres of power in Syria. The Syrian government itself is little more than an assembly of technocrats and civil servants with no power base or authority to speak of. As long as any mention of the future role of the security services, and in particular of their command structure, is omitted, any interim government would be toothless and the opposition would reject the plan. Had the plan mentioned, for instance, the dissolution of the security services and entrusted international peacekeeping forces to take charge of security matters, or announced the unification of these services under a single command that would report to the minister of interior of the new government, we would have seen a different reaction from the opposition.
Second, Brahimi addresses the crisis as if it were mainly a conflict between two parties that have competing agendas and leaders: hence, his definition of the conflict as being a civil war and his plan for a power-sharing agreement. There are some respects in which the conflict in Syria is a civil war, but this definition certainly doesn’t cover all of its aspects. Syria’s revolutionaries do not claim to have a specific ideology or agenda – something for which they have been blamed in the west. They have no leaders to speak of and, most importantly, they do not define their struggle as one for power but one for a change in the way power is exercised.
Obviously many opposition politicians do what politicians around the world do – they spend more time jockeying for position than representing the interests of their constituents; many others have their own clear or less-clear agendas, or those of their foreign sponsors. But the bottom line is that the only source of political legitimacy in the opposition is the acceptance of the essence of the revolution: a fight for dignity and justice, for better governance, for a freer political system, for the accountability of government officials and for the rule of law. This explains, for instance, the fact that the call by Islamist fighting groups in Aleppo last November for the establishment of an Islamic state was swiftly rejected by activists and large segments of society, forcing these groups to backtrack. The message of activists was basically: “You are here to protect us, not to tell us what political system will govern us.”
One could argue here that it is the strictly “diplomatic” approach – which regards the two parties as having competing but equally legitimate interests, and in which any suspension of fighting and any power-sharing deal is seen as a success – that must be faulted. The opposition has now largely acknowledged the need for a negotiated settlement but it understands negotiation as being aimed at an orderly, gradual and peaceful transition to a new political system, and not at splitting the assets of the state between two warring parties or granting political legitimacy to the regime.
Thirdly, there is a total absence of the concept of justice in Brahimi’s plan and statements. Justice, one would have thought, would be particularly important in the case of Syria, which has seen the violent death of more than 60,000 of its citizens. However, the need for justice is political as well as moral.
When the conflict ends and the issue of disarming the fighters comes to the fore, the formal political opposition will need to show that one of the key goals of the revolution, justice, has been attained, even if not as neatly as it would have wanted. That will be an important, if not sufficient, argument to spur the disarmament of fighters; it would be politically short-sighted and foolish to expect them to give up their arms after all the losses they and their families have suffered without a minimal application of justice.
This perceived lack of justice, more than anything else, carries the risk of a potential “Somalisation” of the country. The chances for a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis are growing increasingly dim. But if the international community wants to give negotiation a chance to succeed it cannot afford to close its eyes on key aspects of the conflict.
Note: This article appeared first on 10 January 2013 in the Guardian