In a recent and rare speech, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dug in his heels. While nobody could have realistically expected him to simply walk away from his post or even give much ground to the opposition, negotiations seemed possible. After all, the rebels had made several recent and promising military advances. In December the Obama administration acknowledged the rebel movement as representative of the Syrian people, increasing pressure on Assad to step down. Even Russian officials, who seemed loyal to a fault, had begun showing signs of reversing course. Yet Assad’s speech seemed to ignore all these developments. Instead, he rallied Syrians to oust who he calls terrorists and criminals, while giving no indication that he planned on doing anything short of fomenting continued violence.
It is worth considering why this is the present situation. One possibility might be for him to bow out, admit defeat, and take up some version of a pleasant post-dictatorial retreat on a sunny island. Putting aside the increasingly small number of places this is possible, from Assad’s perspective this is unattractive as it is not likely to actually deter those who would like to see him held accountable for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Another option is for him to keep fighting. And although this characterizes the status quo, the problems with this are multi-fold. From Assad’s perspective, this may end with him hanged or shot or, best case scenario, in power but the target of international contempt for the foreseeable future. For the rebels and Syrian civilians, this means continued losses. For the seemingly paralyzed international community, the continued violence calls into question its ability to effectively moderate conflict involving mass atrocities.
Another option might be for Assad and the rebels or the international community to enter negotiations about how to reduce the violence. This seems an attractive alternative for all involved, yet there are strategic reasons to think this is unlikely. One is that for Assad this option is equivalent to defeat because neither he nor his Alawite supporters could be protected from reprisals or prosecution (Barbara Walter explains this scenario in more detail here). But another fundamental strategic reason negotiation is unlikely has to do with the character of the opposition. In fact, the same speech in which Assad dug in his heels he hinted this problem. Assad: “We never rejected a political solution…but with whom should we talk? With those who have extremist ideology who only understand the language of terrorism?…We negotiate with the master not with the slave.” Despite the blatant appeal to present the rebels as criminal and terrorists agents of the West, Assad’s remarks pointed out a severe problem for the rebels: who, precisely, are they?
The current situation can be explained, at least in part, by a managerial deficiency on the part of the rebels. There is in our opinion no place that better exemplifies the strategic pitfalls of organizational mismanagement than the opposition movement in Syria (specifically, the non-Islamic opposition). A December Guardian report characterized a meeting of rebel leaders in Aleppo as a reintroduction of sorts necessitated by the “endless game of musical chairs”dominating the alliances of Syrian rebels. Without an organized opposition, Assad cannot place much hope in any negotiations.
The disorganization of the Syrian opposition is fundamentally untenable for lasting peace for a number of other reasons as well. Competition between rebel groups for the spoils of war, ineffective coordination of attacks, and fundamental disagreement on the shape of a post-Assad Syria plagues the opposition’s progress. Despite rebel recognition in December, reports continue to cite concern over rebel fragmentation and the funneling of international assistance into terrorists’ hands. The international community simply cannot trust the rebels because they lack structure, and furthermore, the interested parties keep changing. In just 18 months, four groups have claimed to represent the opposition in Syria. There is a reason why it took 21 months of sustained fighting before states even began recognizing the Syrian opposition.
In our recent research (with Danielle Jung), we argue that the level of hierarchy within groups shapes the character of violence, and we are currently working on demonstrating that organizational structure more generally affects the types and targets of violent group resistance and the ability for belligerents to achieve settlements. The lack of hierarchy of the Syrian insurgency cripples current efforts to reach a solution in Syria.
Without a qualified partner to work on a tenable solution in Syria, it’s no wonder Assad has simply chosen to fight, even in the face of increasing push-back from his supporters. The international community needs to consider two things in light of this outcome. First, we must find a way to coordinate efforts between Syrian resistance groups. To date, many of the efforts have emphasized representativeness. In order to unseat Assad, rebel and international efforts require coordination in both their attacks and in formulating a coherent set of policies for the future. Without a clearly unified structure, resistance to Assad is likely to drag on.
Second, the current Syrian situation speaks to the weakness of international mechanisms to resolve conflicts. In the absence of strong well-organized domestic efforts (e.g. Egypt) and international military intervention (e.g. East Timor), how can we oust unpopular, abusive regimes? Diplomatic efforts have not produced outcomes to Assad’s liking, and we are left with very few appetizing options. Granting Assad immunity from institutions such as the International Criminal Court will damage its legitimacy, when in recent years it has tackled some critical human rights issues. Imposing power sharing arrangements very rarely works over time.Thus, we are left with the need for an opposition that is more coherent and functional; it needs to be more organized, and hierarchical. Until one is created, fighting seems like the only strategic option and thousands of civilians most certainly end up in the cross-hairs.