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Engel: How Syria's horrors could lead to the end of the civil war

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News Analysis

Istanbul – Middle East analysts, veteran journalists, and U.S. officials have responded with deep skepticism to the suggestion by Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister that Damascus might offer a ceasefire because the conflict has reached a “stalemate.”

The announcement came via the British newspaper The Guardian Thursday. But it’s a bluff, a tactic, critics said, to make Damascus look flexible and open to diplomacy. 

It may be a ploy, but it doesn’t have to be.

The horrors of Syria – the dead children, the clouds of poison gas, the confusing foreign interference – could end up being what ends the civil war and saves the country. Sometimes things have to get very painful before you realize you can’t take it anymore.

Why the rebels might want diplomacy now, and not before.

The moderate rebels, the Free Syrian Army, have lost control of the revolution. Militants linked to al Qaeda have flooded the country on a mission to topple President Bashar Assad and establish a new caliphate, an Islamic empire. 

A report from the respected military consultancy IHS Jane’s estimated that 10,000 hardcore al Qaeda-style jihadists have entered Syria. More arrive every day. Tunisia alone has said it has banned 6,000 of its citizens from traveling to Syria, worried they’d join the war. 

This week, Islamic radicals took over the Syrian town of Azaz near the Turkish border. They killed members of the Free Syrian Army as they drove the rebels from the town. 

The extremists have kidnapped journalists. They’ve carried out public floggings and executions of alleged sinners and traitors.

This is not what most Syrians were hoping for when they started spray painting “the people want to topple the regime” on city walls two and half years ago.

A human rights worker who helps provide services in rebel-held areas shocked me last week with this admission:

“If I knew two years ago what I know now, I wouldn’t have supported the revolution. If Bashar Assad didn’t have so much blood on his hands, I would join him; but he does, so I can’t. I would have stuck with Bashar, even fought for him, if I knew it was going to get like this,” he said. He's terrified of the Islamists who hijacked the revolt.

A doctor I know who has stitched the bullet holes of dozens of rebels – maybe hundreds, he’s not sure – told me he doesn’t want the rebels to win, not anymore. 

“It would be a disaster if they marched into Damascus,” he said. He wants a negotiated settlement and for Assad to leave power.

The Moderate Free Syrian Army commander, Salim Idris, said this week he would engage in talks with the regime, if there was no future political role for Assad. Just like the deputy prime minister’s hint of a ceasefire, Idris’s offer may be a ploy, but it doesn’t have to be, either.

Why the regime might want diplomacy now, and not before.

The Syrian regime appears to have miscalculated when it fired chemical weapons according to U.S. and European intelligence and human rights groups. It has so far avoided a U.S. military retaliation, but only by the skin of its teeth. And thousands of regime loyalists fled the country while the U.S. appeared ready to strike, taking their money and contacts with them. The regime looked into the abyss, and may not have liked what it saw. 

The Syrian government, like the rebels, has also lost control of the revolution. Iran and Hezbollah are increasingly shouldering the burden. Syrian military and intelligence officers could realize that the longer the war drags on, the less authority they’ll have. The Syrian military surely doesn’t want to fight off a revolt, only to hand the country to outsiders. 

A possible way out

If both Syrian officials and Idris are flirting with a ceasefire and diplomacy, it might be a good idea to take them up on it. 

Syria is supposed to have presidential elections in May 2014. Assad has said he will respect the results. He’s said he's unsure if he'll run for office again. 

There is no reason why the elections can’t be held earlier. The goal of a ceasefire and negotiations could be to find a moderate group of consensus candidates to replace Assad in early elections and oversee an end to the conflict and reconciliation. 

It would not be easy, but both sides – perhaps for the first time in the war – have incentives for a negotiated solution. 

Without that motivation there can never be peace.

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