Summary of the proceedings and final vote
GCSP – Maison de la paix
What started as a civil uprising in the wake of the Arab Spring in March 2011 has become an intense proxy war in the region. At the heart of the raging conflict and politico-diplomatic crisis stands Bashar al Assad.
So the question lingers: “Is there a solution in Syria with Assad?”
On 16 December, The Geneva Centre for Security Policy held the second edition of its recently-launched initiative “The Geneva Security Debates” hosted by Newsweek Middle East Editor Ms. Janine di Giovanni. The debate featured two renowned Middle East experts, Dr Joshua Landis and Dr Randa Slim, who discussed the motion: “Is there a Solution in Syria with Assad?” After 90 minutes of lively debate between the two experts, a majority of the Geneva audience voted in favour of the motion.
Dr Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma, took position in favour of a negotiated ceasefire with Bashar al-Assad that would keep him in power. His counterpart, Dr Randa Slim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC and Adjunct Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, argued that Syria has no future with Assad staying in power.
In support of his argument of no alternative to a solution without Assad, Dr Landis addressed the audience with four significant facts. First, Assad is still backed by a majority of 65% of the Syrian people, including a Sunni and Alawite middle class and predominantly non-Muslim minorities. Second, there is no “liberal” and no “moderate” alternative among the rebel groups on the battleground that commit the same atrocities as Assad does. Thirdly, Assad is the only guarantee to keep the state apparatus together in a society based on kinship and clan-loyalties. Finally, Russian military involvement in Syria and US reluctance toward regime change make ousting Assad from power impossible, he argued.
Dr Joshua Landis
After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Syria will be added to the list of Western-caused failed states through forced regime change that will lead to another wave of refugee influx to Europe.
For these reasons, the international community has to “accept the reality in Syria” which is that with a forced regime change and the removal of Assad from power, a state collapse will be inevitable. After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Syria will be added to the list of Western-caused failed states through forced regime change that will lead to another wave of refugee influx to Europe.
From Landis’ point of view, the solution for a settlement in Syria is that the international community has to come to terms with the fact that even though Assad is part of the problem “there is no getting rid of Assad.” Therefore, the West has to work on a ceasefire with the Assad regime to freeze the military hostilities that could be followed by negotiations with the opposition on the future of Syria which he sees within a federal arrangement of rule between Assad and rebel-held areas.
Accordingly, instead of pushing for a counter-productive regime change, the international community has to compromise with a future Syria with Bashar al-Assad, otherwise it will never be able to gather around the negotiation table to end the bloodshed in war-torn Syria. ‘Assad has to stay in power’, Joshua Landis concluded.
Contesting Joshua Landis’ position, Dr Randa Slim counter-argued that Assad is not only part of the problem but the root cause of it. For her, there is no transitional road-map with Assad, who has become for millions of Syrians “the face of the bloody Syrian war”.
Assad is not in control of the majority of the Syrian people and factually not popularly supported at all, Dr Slim noted. Hence, Assad’s withdrawal from power is not necessarily tied to state collapse as, portrayed by Dr Landis. In fact, even the Syrians under his control do not necessarily support him and there are many indicators of increasing resistance within the Alawite community towards joining Assad’s army.
Rather, a negotiated deal could keep the state intact without Assad being in the scene. Putting it precisely, Slim stressed that it is Bashar al-Assad in person as the symbol of this bloody war who has to give up power.
In contradiction to Landis, Dr Slim declared that there are indeed moderate rebel groups on the battlefield that should be equipped and trained by the Western powers in their fight against Bashar al-Assad but also against ISIS and the Nusra Front. These are mainly the Sunni armed rebel groups, among them Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham, that are the ones who protect the minorities’ rights and defend Syrian civilians but for sure it is not Assad. Unfortunately, those moderate rebel groups are being targeted on a daily basis by Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, with the West standing on the sidelines, she noted...
Dr Randa Slim
Once Assad and his close circle are removed, there will be a higher potential for a successful transitional road-map in Syria which will enable the Syrian people to create a new social contract.
Once Assad and his close circle are removed, there will be a higher potential for a successful transitional road-map in Syria which will enable the Syrian people to create a new social contract, Slim believes. The solution for ending the Syrian war is in collaboration with Russia and Iran in order to uninstall Assad and his closest aides to replace them with others who can preserve the state apparatus. Only after that, a ceasefire can be reached to commence the transitional period that stipulates power sharing between Syria’s political and ethnic components.
Most importantly, Syrians have to have the “ownership” of the transitional process to determine the future development of their own state. In this critical phase the international community needs to diplomatically, technically, and financially support the Syrian people through large investments in the build-up of the totally destroyed Syrian social and economic infrastructure.
Assad does not own Syria nor does he represent Syrians. Rather, he is the major obstacle to a negotiated solution in Syria and the symbol of “child murderer” for millions of Syrians, Dr Slim asserted. For this reason, Assad has to leave power she concluded.