If the resignation of peace envoy Kofi Annan has left world powers scrambling for ways to bring about a political solution to Syria‘s civil war, it has confirmed the Syrian opposition’s belief that there is no alternative to a military struggle to bring down the Assad regime. “The defeat of the Annan plan means there is no political solution,” says Sorbonne sociology professor Burhan Ghallioun, executive member and former leader of the opposition Syrian National Council. “The Western powers and the whole international community now has to support a transition to democracy by all means possible. We have no time to waste.” In a largely symbolic show of support, the UN General Assembly on Friday called for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to halt their attacks on the rebels, and for a political transition to begin immediately.
Despite rebel supporters’ belief that the new phase of the armed struggle epitomized by the battle for control of Aleppo has brought overall victory within reach, prospects for a democratic transition appear increasingly remote after 17 months of bloodshed that opposition supporters say has claimed as many as 20,000 lives. The escalation of the fighting in recent weeks has seen the military struggle eclipse political options in a manner that may have profound consequences for a post-Assad future. Though Ghalioun managed to sneak into the rebel-held territory of Idlib in late June and have his photo snapped with gun-toting FSA fighters, political opposition leaders like himself, in suits and ties and comfortable in the corridors of power in Western capitals, have seemed in danger of being marginalized by the battle on the ground. Despite being anointed as a leadership in waiting by Western and Arab supporters of the struggle against Assad, there is a growing sense that the exiled politicians like Ghalioun might have to fight for their place in a post-Assad Syria.
Sitting on the balcony of his apartment in a Paris suburb, with two French bodyguards close by, Ghalioun says that SNC leaders have lately discussed forming a group of exiled technocrats like himself “to stand a little apart as a reconciliation force” during the expected tumult of a post-Assad period.
Despite such talk of reconciliation, however, the opposition has done little thus far to persuade most of the regime’s traditional support base that they have nothing to fear in a post-Assad Syria. That is a stark contrast to Libya, where the revolt was launched in early 2011 partly by defectors from Muammar Gaddafi‘s regime, who then went on to become key figures in the opposition leadership and in the post-Gaddafi government.
Despite 17 months of bitter fighting, it might not be too late to reach out to some of Assad’s traditional supporters, says Monzer Makhous, the SNC’s spokesman in Europe. Makhous should know: Born in the coastal city of Latakia, he is from the Alawite minority that has ruled Syria for four decades under Bashar al-Assad, and his father Hafez before him. Makhous believes that “the great majority” of Alawites would abandon Assad if they were convinced that they would not face bloody retribution at the hands of the rebels. Instead, most cling to the regime, terrified that all-out slaughter of Alawites will follow Assad’s downfall. “The regime is trying to make out that only they are protecting the Alawites,” Makhous told TIME on Friday. “The Syrian opposition and the SNC has done nothing to address this problem. We need to make political connections with these people.”
A prize opportunity to forge links with regime insiders came last month with the defection of Manaf Tlas, a Republican Guard brigade commander and one of Assad’s longtime confidantes, who fled to Paris on July 6. Although Tlas is a Sunni Muslim, Western officials had hoped his defection would prompt a wave of top regime officials to follow suit, enhancing prospects for a smooth political transition. The Wall Street Journal quoted one U.S. official saying that Tlas—a debonaire bon vivant from one of Syria’s richest families—was “one of the few figures in opposition to the regime who could potentially help restore order in Damascus.”
Despite the enthusiasm for Tlas in some foreign capitals where concerns are growing over the need to give the Syrian armed forces a central role in maintaining order after Assad falls, opposition figures have been cool towards the high-value defector. Makhous admitted on Friday that SNC offials have held talks with Tlas in Paris, but that they do not foresee a special position for him within their ranks. Likewise, Ghalioun dismisses any key role for Tlas. “He is a general, like others, who was a partner in the regime,” Ghalioun says. “He was cooked from the start of the revolution.”
In the absence of accord over how to manage a transition between rebels, opposition groups and regime figures like Tlas who may be wiling to break from Assad, the danger grows of a protracted civil war drawing in regional players. “The scene is… set for a proxy war between Shia militias recruited from Syria’s Alawite minority and a future Sunni-led Syrian government supplied by its richer Arab brethren,” writes Jonathan Eyal, head of international security studies at London’s defense think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in a briefing paper published last week. Since losing Assad would be a “calamity” for Iran, Tehran will arm Shi’ite-aligned militia groups inside Syria, says Eyal, who believes that Russia and Israel will also be drawn into a post-Assad conflict. “A less promising future for any country can hardly be imagined,” he says.
Forcing some form of peace on post-Assad Syria will be complex and dangerous, not to mention expensive. In the same RUSI report, the organization’s Director of Military Sciences, Michael Codner, calculates that the U.N. would need to deploy hundreds of thousands of peacekeepers, far more than the 200,000 peacekeepers it sent during the 1990s to war-torn Bosnia, where the population was just one-fifth of Syria’s today. Indeed, NATO officials at the time suggested sending up to 600,000 troops—a force which Syria could well ultimately require, although there appears to be little appetite among foreign powers currently to put boots on the ground in Syria. Even then, Codner argues, “peace enforcement would only be feasible if there was general acquiescence among the parties on the ground.” As Kofi Annan found out, such acquiescence is a long way off.