The situation in Syria is growing ever more precarious. Violence is escalating as Syrians face a harsh winter, an economic crisis, and mounting food shortages. The UN–Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, has issued dire warnings of a decline into chaos and warlordism alongside his attempts to revive a peace plan. 

In a Q&A, Sami Moubayed says that despite major obstacles, a political solution to the conflict remains possible. But any proposed future Syrian government must balance the demands of Syria’s disparate stakeholders.

What are the latest developments in the Syrian crisis?

Sami Moubayed
Moubayed, a political analyst and historian, focuses his research on Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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The situation is so bad in Syria that many have written off the mediation efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint special representative of the United Nations and Arab League. Violence is escalating, and besides already controlling entire pockets around Damascus, rebel forces are advancing deeper into the capital. The Syrian economy is also in dire straits, and if the rebels do not bring down the regime soon, state bankruptcy will. 

For years, the exchange rate stood at 50 Syrian pounds (SYP) to the dollar, but it has been rising since the Syrian crisis broke out and currently stands at over 90 SYP to the dollar. The declining value of the currency has caused panic on the streets as ordinary Syrians now find that their money has lost half its value. 

Syria’s acute bread crisis is becoming particularly troublesome. Grain mills have shut down because of the violence in the northern part of the country, and the price of wheat has soared from 35 SYP to 78–80 SYP per kilogram. Bakeries that used to feed the Syrian capital have also closed down. 

High bread prices and a lack of basic goods like fuel to heat homes—especially given the exceptionally harsh winter Syria is currently experiencing—are impacting the livelihood of all Syrians, both those for and against the regime. 

Even loyal government troops are expected to start grumbling as economic malaise affects their livelihood. Few governments can maintain legitimacy amid intense economic problems, particularly when the cost of basic subsidies that the state provides to the people begins to skyrocket as it has in Syria.

How does the international community view the crisis?

Neither Russia nor the United States can tolerate a breakdown of Syria’s army or state. The two countries share a common concern regarding the emergence of a power vacuum, and so they remain committed to a political solution. Learning from the chaos in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall, officials in Russia and the United States worry about potential lawlessness and violence in Syria, especially as the situation quickly becomes more uncertain and perilous. U.S. officials in particular are worried about unsolicited arms making their way to al-Qaeda operatives and extremist jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front). 

For its part, Moscow has sought to preserve its real ally in Damascus, the Syrian army, which Russia has supplied and trained since 1957. Nevertheless, Russian officials are searching for a political solution to the crisis as the Syrian army continues to sustain heavy losses. 

It is rumored that a Russian-American breakthrough will be made after President Obama is inaugurated on January 21. That breakthrough is expected to provide a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Almost in anticipation, the United States’ prime ally in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, announced on January 5 that it believes only such an outcome will work for Syria. Then came another indicator—a religious decree (fatwa) by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh prohibiting jihad in Syria.

What are the prospects for a negotiated solution?

Regardless of the way the military conflict plays out and despite major obstacles, a political solution remains possible. If the Syrian government’s grip on power continues to loosen, the regime may seek a negotiated settlement. If the battle drags on with no decisive result, the rebels may do the same.

Some think that the plan devised in Geneva over the summer by the United Nations Security Council is the best solution. The plan calls for the establishment of a transitional government including opposition figures and members of the existing government. It doesn’t go into detail on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Brahimi’s interpretation of the plan foresees Assad remaining in the country until his term ends in 2014, although he would be stripped of his powers.

Alternatively, early presidential elections could take place in 2013 at the request of Brahimi and his backers in Russia, the United States, and the United Nations. The transitional period would include a ceasefire, new parliamentary elections, and the drafting of a constitution that gives real powers to the prime minister, who would probably come from the opposition. 

The pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily al-Akhbar hinted on January 5 that this prime-minister-in-waiting could be the Paris-based veteran opposition figure Haytham Manna, a human rights lawyer and native of Deraa, the birthplace of the Syrian revolt. The newspaper, usually relying on sources privy to inside information, added that this will only come to pass if Assad is allowed to run for the 2014 election. 

Still, there are substantial disagreements between Brahimi and Syrian officials on whether Assad can take part in any future election. And the newly created National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has also refused any settlement that keeps Assad in power until 2014. 

For his part, Assad’s January 6 speech at the Damascus Opera House outlined how far he would be willing to go on a political settlement. He called for a mutual ceasefire, along with halting the flow of arms to Syrian rebels. He then said that a national dialogue would begin, from which a new constitution and new cabinet would emerge, completely bypassing any talk of presidential elections or a transitional period. Rather than sounding conciliatory, he delivered a fiery battle speech, signaling that this is not a man preparing to step down anytime soon.  

Much depends on how events unfold in the battle for Damascus, on which both rebel forces and the Syrian regime are pinning high hopes. If no clear victor emerges, then the United States and Russia must force disparate stakeholders to make painful concessions in order to resolve the conflict. 

Should Brahimi’s version of the Geneva plan come to fruition, Russia and Iran would be able to claim victory by having Assad remain in power until 2014, unlike the fate of the authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Opposition forces in Syria could also boast about a planned and long-term transition different from other countries in the region, which would eventually lead to regime change through the ballot box.  

To be sure, each party will be disappointed in many respects barring a decisive military win. But the Geneva plan could serve as a positive compromise for all parties—similar to the Taif Agreement in 1989 that ended the fifteen-year-long Lebanese civil war. 

What are the prospects of a negotiated settlement given rising sectarianism in Syrian society?

Any proposed future Syrian government will have to include Alawites if a resolution is to be reached. Although they only represent about 12 percent of the total population, Syria has long been known to be led by an “Alawite regime,” due to their large representation in top positions across the government and security services. 

Rank-and-file Alawite notables have historically backed the regime, and today they are warning that the post-Assad governments being proposed would lead to Sunni Islamic rule and the persecution of their community. 

Many Syrians are blaming the whole Alawite community for the government’s violent crackdown on protesters. But an entire community should not be held responsible for the wrongdoings of a handful of its members, especially since most Alawites remain poor and live in grossly underdeveloped districts much the same as the majority of the Syrian population.

In order to achieve a political solution to the crisis, the Alawite community must be engaged so that its fears are pacified. Balancing Alawite and Sunni demands will be challenging, and giving Alawites disproportionate representation may infuriate Sunnis. But the Alawites must be reassured, and any government that marginalizes their community risks more unrest or perhaps even a long and vicious civil war.