Opinion: Start planning now for transition in Syria

Syria is in the midst of a civil war. The common wisdom both from inside and out is that the Assad dynasty is doomed to follow the plight of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Gadhafi in Libya, not to mention Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The questions are how, when and how many more dead.

The situation from inside is untenable. As many as 7,000 to 9,000 dead, tens of thousands injured and displaced, with the same amount in Syrian jails. The Syrian army tactic of sealing off a town or village before firing indirect artillery barrages and using snipers to pick off those venturing into the streets has forced whole communities to go underground. They use smuggled satellite phones and modems, as well as portable generators, to bypass government blockages. 

There is no going back for the hundreds of thousands who have supported the demonstrations or suffered from the government crackdown in one way or another. Just as important, Syria is a country of 22 million people who mirror the myriad ethnic, religious and cultural populations that make up the Arab world. The escalating violence threatens to overflow into a regional conflict of sectarian upheaval. Even the Arab League and reserved Saudis have publicly stated that it was no longer appropriate to stand by and watch the bloodshed in Syria. 

However, the fact that the uprising, which emanated organically across the country, maintains little central direction or single political polestar makes a foreign military coup impractical. There are no safe havens or defined corridors to protect through foreign air power. Government forces are purposely interspersed through populated civilian areas.   

I have worked closely with Syrian activists for the past decade, and there is no doubt that, for better or worse, the uprising began as a democratic, nonviolent demonstration against tyrannical rule in the truest sense. The local coordinating committees who provide logistical support and communications among neighborhood activists were a product of the upheaval. Their primary leaders were liberal professionals whose angst has been festering over decades as their quality of life and civil liberties eroded and the influence of Iran increased. (Interestingly, many of the uprising’s star leaders are professional women, such as the leading human rights attorney, Razan Zeituna, now in hiding.) The strategy of countering demonstrators by fueling sectarian fears of retribution à la Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s de-Baathification policy in Iraq and the recent violence against Christians in Egypt was initially received as disingenuous to most Syrians during the first few months of the uprising. 

As both the political and security situations escalated over the past year, externally sponsored extremist groups began to move into the political vacuum. For example, last week’s endorsement by al-Qaeda and an increase in activity of Islamic Salafi-inspired groups is instigating further retrenchment by the remaining 30 percent or so of society yet to abandon the current regime, namely the business class, Christians, Kurds and other minorities who would otherwise be supporting the revolution. Additionally, the rise of Islamist-led governments in Tunisia and Egypt, combined with the impending turmoil in Libya, further dissuades the remaining population segments from aggressively advocating for regime change. 

While the Arab League and the United Nations contemplate observer and humanitarian missions, the Syrians realize that they have to make do largely for themselves. The umbrella opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council (SNC), modeled after the Libyan Transitional National Council, has not yet asked for foreign military intervention other than to provide humanitarian support. 

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of a few hundred core army defectors, receive safe haven and small arms from Turkey but lack the recruits and materiel to go head-to-head against the Russian- and Iranian-supported heavy Syrian armor. More for the purposes of turning up the heat on Assad and his Iranian ally rather than actually effecting a coup, the Saudis and Qataris are contemplating providing arms and logistical support to the FSA. 

The opposition is hesitant to publicly call for foreign intervention with an overt American presence, such as that waged in Libya, even if conducted under the legal cover of the U.N. or another multinational mission. Privately, however, it recognizes that such an intervention would only be possible through logistical and diplomatic support of the United States or our allies. U.S. humanitarian support for displaced and injured Syrians would help create good will among the general population while softening the ground for the “good guys” in the opposition in their fight against the “bad guys,” be it the Iranian-sponsored regime or the al-Qaeda and Salafi extremists. It is in our national security interest for Washington to bolster the Arab League’s observer effort while discreetly providing material and political support to the SNC. 

The United States can help foster a discussion regarding the future of the country in a more viable and localized context than that of the American Future of Iraq Program organized by President George W. Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq. As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, it is never too early to prepare for the tremendous upheaval of a transition period. Without such an anticipatory program, the grassroots that took to the streets will be co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood, or worse. 

This effort should include providing technical support to the opposition, inside and out, to begin planning for the transition. Getting it right with issues such as transitional justice, developing effective media and election laws, the role of the military, minority rights and the role of religion are crucial to an effective transition to democracy. A very public discussion of these issues, initiated on the world stage, would provide hope to the remaining Syrians tied to the dictator and fearing a future without what they know, and ensure against the political vacuum that has resulted from abrupt regime change elsewhere in the region.

Syria came late to the Arab Spring. The world is now otherwise preoccupied. At this point, only Iran, with some complementary activities by Russia and China, is aggressively moving to stop Syria from continuing to implode — albeit on the side of the dictator. It is time for the democratic world to chime in with support for the Syrian democracy activists who are risking their lives in support of the freedom and liberty that we so often take for granted.

James Prince is president of the Los Angeles-based Democracy Council (democracycouncil.org) and is a leading expert on Arab civil society.