Jeffrey Collins: Dealing with a post-war Assad regime—no longer the unthinkable?

With the Syrian civil war now in its fourth year, the month of April 2014 witnessed yet another addition to the war’s growing list of horrendous hallmarks that have claimed 150,000 lives: chlorine gas bombs. Chlorine gas was apparently left off the list of prohibitive chemical weapons the regime is to handover to international inspectors. Now we know why.

It pains me to say it but the time has come to start thinking about dealing with a post-civil war Syria with Assad remaining in power. After besiegement for two years, Homs, the third largest city, has fallen; defections have dropped and outside money and arms from Russia and Iran keep flowing (to the tune of $500 million a month). Moreover, experienced and well-trained fighters from Hezbollah‎ and Iraqi Shiite militias continue to flock to his side while his opponents remain hopelessly divided and under-armed, torn between secularist and Islamist allegiances.

The country’s minority groups—Alawites, Christians, Druze, middle-class Sunnis—have largely remained loyal to him, helped by the fact that Sunni extremists, many foreign, have perpetrated brutal acts of sectarian violence against them. Similarly, for their loyalties the regime has ensured something approaching normalcy: salaries and pensions are paid, schools remain open, and food—even if haphazardly—gets delivered. As the regime secures more and more of the M5 highway linking major urban areas Assad’s authority expands. With intervention now—at least formally—off the table following the chemical weapons agreement brokered by Russia, Assad no longer fears the one variable that could have decidedly sent him the way of Qaddafi.

Therefore, it is now time for those articulating a war-less Syria sans Assad to start viewing the conflict clear eyed: if the goal is to lessen the violence and prevent (further) regional instability, then negotiating with Assad on the basis of him remaining in power is arguably the only way to go. The failure of the recent round of Geneva peace talks was largely the result of the condition that Assad agree to a transition from power. But why abdicate when you are winning? In the case of Syria, we need to start dealing with the world of the pragmatic and not the ideal, as hard as that maybe (and it is). Given that Assad in power may be the only sound option towards ending this tragedy, it is something worth considering.

The Hustings