This paper is also available in Arabic and Persian translations below.

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Preparing for a Syrian Transition

The political unrest in Syria has descended into a civil war. Stripped of legitimacy, the Assad regime has launched a violent assault against the opposition, which is itself determined to see the end of Assad and the overthrow of the regime. With few exceptions, the international community has roundly condemned the actions of the regime and called for Assad to step down. Faced with the unpalatable choice of standing by while Assad massacres the people of Syria or engaging in what is already a violent and unpredictable conflict, the international community should at a minimum prepare to assist any future transition, while at the same time avoid the unintended consequences of badly designed assistance. Before preparing and implementing a strategy, both policymakers and donors must have a comprehensive understanding of the situation. In this report, we outline recommendations for working groups and members of the international community. We develop scenarios for transition; identify relevant peace-building lessons from the past; and pinpoint issues to be addressed in articulating and implementing a post-Assad agenda.

To maintain flexibility, we recommend that the international community prepare for four possible scenarios for transition. Scenarios are an analytic tool designed to illuminate probable outcomes, patterns, and consequences of action or inaction. Preparation for each of these scenarios will require further work with people on the ground. During the last three decades, a large number of peace agreements have been concluded. Half of them broke down within 5 years. The Institute for State Effectiveness recently carried out a comprehensive review of peace agreements, both successful and failed. We have identified several lessons relevant to Syria. Briefly, these are:

I. Framing the objective for the peace agreement: the fundamental sources of violence must be addressed and both sides must accept the same framework and agree on a final goal. Those goals tend to fall into at least one of four categories:

  • The quest for the inclusive state
  • Decentralisation
  • New rules of the game
  • Creating a legitimate centre

II. The role of the mediator and the type of process: to be effective, the mediator must be accepted as an honest broker. The mediator must have credibility with warring parties and support of the international community and regional actors. 

III. Operational level issues: in preparing for the opening of political dialogue in Syria, our comparative reading suggests that decision-makers should closely consider key operational and process issues, without which the process can become abstract and vague. Our recommendations for tangible engagement include:

  • Keep the content narrow and defined
  • Carefully balance short term trade-offs vs. long term stability
  • Address the question of sovereignty and a realistic timeline for resumption of full sovereignty for Syria if there is a form of limited sovereignty for any transition period
  • Pay attention to the implementation of a new constitution, elections, delivery of basic services, and security
  • Mobilise and organise outside resources early
  • Concentrate on building a role for civil society and pay attention to citizens and not just to military and political factions

Conditions in Syria are still too uncertain to create a definitive plan. Instead, we recommend the creation of working groups to prepare and ready a common agenda if the political opportunity presents itself, building on work of exercises such as the Day After Project of The United States Institute for International Peace. The more clearly and credibly a post-Assad agenda can be articulated – and the broader the consensus around it – the more likely the transition is to succeed. Grounded in an understanding of the lessons and methods described above, working groups could and should immediately address each of the following issues:

I. The legal framework
II. Provision of security
III. Internal reorganisation of the state
IV. Media and access to information
V. Public finance
VI. Social and economic development
VII. Immediate stabilisation measures
VIII. Relations with the region and the international community.

A Reconstruction Conference, perhaps held under the auspices of the Arab League, should be immediately convened in order to help create a common action plan, and to allow the international community to make conditional commitments to a common trust fund.

About the Authors

Dr Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart are co-founders of the Institute for State Effectiveness (ISE). The ISE uses a citizen-centered perspective to rethink the fundamentals of the relationship between citizens, the state and the market in the context of globalisation.

Preparing for a Syrian Transition is part of the Legatum Institute's 'Transitions Forum', a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.