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Syria: A Way Forward

Syria A Way Forward17 Dec 2012

Field research from northern Syria released: Free Syrian Army supporters do not support foreign military boots on ground

Eighty percent of Syrians interviewed fear regime will use chemical weapons

“Neo-Salafist” dynamic must be countered, and further Opposition support conditioned on agreement to dismantle chemical weapons

London, 17 December 2012 – Field research from northern Syria was released today giving new insight into the opinions of supporters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). ICOS, an international research organization, interviewed supporters of the FSA in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in Syria.

Ninety-three percent of those interviewed supported an international implementation of a “No-Fly Zone”, 77% supported more money and weapons for the FSA, 74% supported humanitarian aid for the Syrian civilians caught in the conflict, but only 5% supported Western military “boots on the ground”.  Interestingly, support for Arab military “boots on the ground” was also low at 6%.

Humanitarian Action Threshold Crossed

The report noted that the threshold for humanitarian responsibility in Syria has been crossed.

“Although the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle is a recently developed articulation of international obligations, it is important that the Assad regime be on notice that the level of violence is unacceptable, and those who aid and abet the regime bear co-responsibility,” said Norine MacDonald QC, President of ICOS, who traveled to Syria to  conduct the field research. “It is clear from the scenes you see on a daily basis in Aleppo that the Assad regime is consciously targeting civilian areas, hospitals and clinics, turning the city into a wholesale war zone.”

Develop a ‘competitive’ response to Neo-Salafism: “The longer the war the longer the beards”

The report underlines that the Syrian conflict has provided a fertile environment for the development of new fundamentalist groups fighting the regime, describing a “Neo-Salafist” anti-Assad fighter.

“Growing support for fundamentalist views is partly a result of the lack of visible support to the FSA from the international community – if we are helping the FSA on a military basis, or responding to the medical and aid needs of the Syrian people, this is not apparent inside the country,” said MacDonald. “This has fed anti-Western sentiment and growing support for Islamist fighting groups.”

Of Syrians interviewed, although 83% felt positive about Turkey and 61% were positive about Saudi Arabia, only 13% felt positive about the United States. Ninety-nine percent of those interviewed were negative about Russia and Iran.

Surge Humanitarian and Military Assistance, but deal with Chemical Weapons

The report calls for more attention to be given to the question of chemical weapons possessed by the Syrian regime. Eighty percent of those interviewed in Syria said they were concerned that the Assad regime would use chemical weapons. It is now believed that Syria has one of the largest stocks of chemical weapons in the world and the largest in the Middle East.

“There is a real danger that chemical weapons will not only be used by the current regime, they may fall into undesirable hands if and when regime meltdown occurs,” said MacDonald. “A surge of military and humanitarian assistance is needed, but it should be on the clear basis that it is conditional on immediate dismantling of Syrian chemical weapons and military infrastructure.”

Concerns regarding Sectarian Violence – A Hybrid Transition Needed

“The protracted violence has created an intensely traumatized population, and a conflict increasingly shaped in sectarian terms. We must be concerned that the fall of the Assad regime could be followed by a sectarian bloodbath,” warned Alexander Tylecote, Senior Middle East Analyst at ICOS, who has lived and worked in the region.

The report underlines that the current Syrian regime has some characteristics which make the policy of regime change as used in Libya unviable.

“The dynamics inside Syria make the process of relinquishing power for the current regime complex and dangerous,” said Tylecote. “That is why we are recommending a focus on hybrid transition rather than a regime change.”

The report argues that sectarianism is a vital factor which has allowed the regime to survive so long. “The regime has played on the fear that minorities have – particularly the Alawite sect – of the Sunni-majority rebels,” said Tylecote.  “Under these circumstances, meltdown of the regime may move power into the hands of a predominantly Alawite militia, and trigger sectarian violence as we saw in Iraq following the removal of Saddam Hussein.”

The report argues that reaching an agreement with Russia and a common policy over Syria may be vital. “Finding a modus vivendi with the Russians is crucial if sectarian civil war is to be avoided. Russia is the one country able to significantly alter the dynamics inside the Assad regime,” said Tylecote.

For a successful transition period, there needs to be a collective and coherent effort to reach out to those who continue to remain loyal to the regime but may provide moderating voices and command respect from Syrians irrespective of religion or class.

“Religious leaders will likely play a key role in moderation and calming sectarian tension, whilst gaining the trust of business leaders of all political colors is also likely to be crucial,” said Tylecote. “In this way, appointing a man like Moaz al-Khatib as head of the new National Coalition is a positive step.”

Intiqaliya to Ittahadiya: Transition towards a federal Syria

The report suggests that the current structure of the Syrian republic is no longer viable, and that a type of Syrian federation should be considered.

“The most effective way of achieving a peaceful transition without sectarian conflict may be the creation of a federal Syrian state with two semi-autonomous regions – an Alawite north west and Kurdish north east,” said Tylecote. “This would give the Alawite community an option to withdraw their support of the Assad regime, as it would reassure them of a future in Syria after the end of the conflict”.

The research, which interviewed over two-hundred and fifty supporters of the FSA in Northern Syria is presented in the report, ‘Syria: A Way Forward’.
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