The ‘Wicked Problem’ in Syria

Jennifer Welsh on why the conflict in Syria is so resistant to resolution.
By: /
December 4, 2012
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Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

At the end of last week, in a desperate attempt to frustrate a co-ordinated rebel assault on Damascus, the Syrian regime halted communication both to and within the country by shutting down internet access and phone networks nationwide. Though a temporary measure, the shutdown – combined with the closure of the city’s airport – demonstrated the determination of Assad and those around him to hold onto the Syrian capital at all costs.

We are 20 months into the Syrian crisis, with little sign of how it will be resolved. This ambiguity is particularly worrying, given what the BBC’s Middle East correspondent Jim Muir calls the "bottomless pit of humanitarian needs" in the country, particularly as winter approaches. The Syrian government’s current bombardment of the suburbs of Damascus, where rebels are dug in, is unprecedented in its scale. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently lamented that the conflict has reached "appalling heights of brutality," and predicted that Syrian refugee numbers would soon swell to more than 700,000. Yet, at the same time, the UN appears to be leaving Syrians to rely on their own devices, announcing yesterday that it will pull all non-essential staff out of the country.

The secretary general claims that building a free and democratic Syria "will require political dialogue and negotiations." But there is scant evidence that the prerequisites are in place. The closest we have ever come to real negotiations, it seems, was during Kofi Annan’s tenure as peace envoy, in the late spring and summer of 2012. With the UN Security Council and the government of Syria indicating support for Annan’s 'six-point peace plan’, and the opposition indicating tacit agreement as well, there was a brief moment of hope.

But, according to those close to the mediation process, the moment evaporated due to a failure of the Syrian National Council to coalesce and exercise leadership, and of Assad and his entourage to articulate a real political strategy for transition. In addition, the massacre at Houla in late May 2012 dampened the hope and halted the momentum, making it next to impossible for Annan to initiate talks. Indeed, some believe it was staged precisely to quash any hint of negotiations.

Those who preferred a more muscular (read: ‘military’) solution stepped into this vacuum with ease. They came from both sides of the conflict. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So, what could shift us from the ‘logic of war’ back towards negotiation? There are a variety of factors that theoretically could sway the Assad regime. The first is   defection by a significant number of senior military officers which, despite some high-profile examples, has yet to materialize. The second is pressure on Assad from members of the Alawite community, which thus far seems unlikely, especially given the appearance of fundamentalist tendencies amongst some of the armed opposition groups. Then there is the option of external military intervention which, while not ruled out, is the last preference of most western governments. To date, the West’s willingness to countenance military measures has been limited to the goal of containing regional ‘spillover’ – illustrated by the NATO meeting today, which is expected to approve the deployment of Patriot missile interceptors to defend Turkey’s border with Syria. These interceptors, which NATO officials are quick to describe as "purely defensive," would be used to shoot down Syrian missiles or warplanes that stray over the border.  There is still great reluctance – from both Turkey and its western allies – to consider military maneouvres into Syria itself.

So, that leaves one other possibility: a huge military success by rebel forces, or a high-profile assassination, which could change the balance of power. But as commentators have noted, it isn’t certain whether a victory for the rebels in Damascus would necessarily lead to negotiation. It might, on the contrary, provoke exactly the opposite: retreat and fight to the end. It is this possibility that particularly worries Washington, which recently reiterated its warnings about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against its people.

The picture looks even bleaker when we turn to those countries that supposedly have influence with, or are reliant upon, the Assad regime. At the top of the list here is Iran, whose support thus far looks steadfast. Improvement in relations between Washington and Tehran could theoretically break the link between Assad and the Iranians, but it isn’t hard to see that the prospect of such improvement is still dim. In fact, some analysts believe it was Kofi Annan’s desire to involve Iran in his diplomatic solution that provoked queasiness in the U.S. and a lack of full commitment to his role as mediator.

The Russian position is more ambiguous. While it enjoyed leverage in the first half of 2012, it’s unclear today what pressure it can exercise. President Putin has criticized NATO’s plans to defend the Turkish border as an act which will "exacerbate" rather than "defuse" the crisis. He has also stated publicly that Moscow is not wedded to Assad, or to protecting the Syrian government; it simply sees no viable alternative at present.

Faced with such a bleak picture, some in the West maintain the best strategy is to improve the strength and effectiveness of the armed opposition in Syria. In short, arm them and finance them. Interestingly, those voicing these ideas often come from what I would call the ‘Balkan generation’ – for whom the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the atrocities committed in Bosnia were a formative experience. The lesson they took away from that episode was that the arms embargo was a tragic mistake, which doomed the victims of Serbs to their fate.

But is this the right case from which to draw lessons? Or should we consider other historical cases, in which western countries have armed opposition factions, only to fuel regional instability or create new monsters? Perhaps the best strategy is to avoid historical analogies altogether, and to recognize that Syria represents what some social theorists call a ‘wicked problem’: one that is resistant to resolution. There just aren’t any good options for those on the outside.

So far, western countries have resisted providing extensive military hardware to the rebels, and have ‘encouraged’ the opposition to unite. The drawn-out negotiations in Qatar last month finally produced the new National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, led by Moaz al-Khatib (a former imam of a Damascan mosque), which enjoys strong backing from the ‘Friends of Syria’. But the key questions are: 1) whether this body can establish leadership in the field, by controlling and integrating the rebel armed forces; and 2) whether countries such as Russia will see it as the foundation for a viable alternative government, which can gradually be used to supplant the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, as an experienced mediator recently pointed out to me, western governments risk making matters worse. By promising to support the opposition, but without following through in any tangible way, the West risks making the opposition more wedded to its hopes for military victory and less willing to consider proposals for a political transition. In other words, even our inaction has effects on the ground in Syria.