Syria: An up to date assessment of the current status of the conflict

During President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Russian airbase in Syria this week, he delivered a speech thanking Russian military forces for their “efforts against terrorism” in the war-torn country. He declared “mission accomplished” in terms of the campaign to defeat ISIS, whilst announcing that he would begin withdrawing “a significant part” of Russia’s military contingent from Syria. However, the Russian airbase in Latakia and the Naval Base in Tartous would remain “permanently”.

There is certainly an element of truth in Mr. Putin’s words. ISIS has lost over 95% of the territory it controlled in Syria, including all of the major cities: Raqqa, al-Bab, Deir Hafer, Deir Ezzor, Palmyra, al-Qaryatain, al-Bukamal, and others. Gas and oil fields previously controlled by Daesh (ISIS) have all been retaken. In addition to the territory they have lost, ISIS has also suffered grave losses of military equipment, logistical damage, and now lacks access to basic resources. Tens of thousands of fighters have been neutralised.

Yet some ISIS pockets remain, notably the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, as well as a group of villages to the north of Hama, and some districts to the east of the Euphrates River. To rightfully claim a total victory, the remaining pockets must be cleared.

Moreover, the Russian military intervention in support of Syrian government forces began on the 30th of September 2015, with the stated objective of defeating all those considered ‘terrorists’ by Moscow. Al-Nusra front, formerly the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, maintains a strong presence in the country. It is the dominant force in the northern province of Idlib (which is entirely in rebel hands), still has an enclave near Daraa City, and is closely intertwined with other rebel groups in the area directly to the north of the government-held city of Aleppo.

Ahrar al-Sham, another group designated a terrorist organization in Russia, and indeed in most of the world, is virtually omnipresent in Syria. They are the second-largest rebel group, they control much of the territory in Idlib, they have fighters in East Ghouta, they are with al-Nusra and the Zinki faction in northern Aleppo, and they were until very recently in Western Ghouta, an area now completely in government hands. Jaysh al-Islam, also a terrorist group from the perspective of the Russian government, continues to fire rockets into residential districts of Damascus from their positions in Duma and Erbin, two of the most important towns in East Ghouta. Although the percentage of East Ghouta district held by rebels has been significantly reduced since the Syrian army’s offensive in the spring of 2016, Jaysh al-Islam remains in control of the western parts of that rural suburb adjacent to the capital.

Therefore, by Russia’s own standards, a true victory against ‘terrorism’ is still a little way off. A near-complete victory against the terrorist group ISIS is perhaps a better way of putting it. But Russian airpower has been crucial in turning the tide of the war in President Assad’s favour, since they first intervened with airstrikes back in the autumn of 2015.

Prior to October 2015, the situation on the ground was drastically different. We saw a weak and disorganized military, retreating on multiple fronts and conceding large swathes of land to ISIS in the east, to Nusra in the north, and to other rebel units in the south. Latakia was in serious danger, Damascus was barely holding on, Aleppo was the rebel stronghold, Hama was about to fall, Daraa was entirely under rebel control, Western Ghouta was a Nusra safehouse, and the collapse of the state seemed imminent. Russia’s entry changed the game. Today, Aleppo has been recaptured by Syrian military forces, Latakia is entirely under government control, much of Hama’s northern countryside has been retaken, Palmyra was liberated from Daesh, Deir Ezzor has been freed, Syrian troops have entered Daraa City, they control a large portion of East Ghouta, 100% of Western Ghouta, and are now preparing to storm Idlib.

The Syrian state has been preserved, the government of Bashar al-Assad stabilised, and the Syrian army discernibly strengthened.

The general international optimism surrounding the Geneva Peace Process has faded away as the negotiations themselves have been stalled. The Syrian government’s delegation, led by Dr Bashar al-Jaafari, walked out of the meeting in frustration. In a televised interview, Mr Jaafari stated that the opposition’s insistence on President Assad’s immediate departure as a precondition was a “non-starting point which could only reach a dead end”. Political analysts have suggested that the government’s decision to withdraw their delegation was an embarrassment to Moscow, who had spent months organizing the event and persuading the government side to attend.

Meanwhile, there are several new reports alleging that US President Donald Trump has abandoned previous US attempts to oust the Syrian leader, deciding instead that he could remain in office until 2021. Whether he expects Bashar Assad to resign then, or whether he would tolerate him running for a new term, remains unconfirmed.

#syria #russia

Time for a fresh approach to Human Rights in Syria – and everywhere

This week Vladimir Putin visited Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This is also the very week on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Because of which, the Next Century Foundation would like to reiterate some of the values and principles it believes in and the significance of Human Rights to all peoples of this world.

The Human Rights issue affects the entire global population. Rather than transient national glory, the pursuit of Human Rights is an achievement of which the entire human race can be rightfully proud. Every human being, regardless of their race, sex, religious belief, nationality, language, birth, property or other status, is inherently entitled to inalienable rights and those rights are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By standing up for Human Rights we defeng the principle of human dignity, and recognise the equal moral worth of every individual.

Whilst we certainly believe in the symbolic importance of marking this occasion, concrete measures must be taken to uphold human rights where they are constantly and flagrantly violated. Abuses of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic have made headlines for almost seven years now, with international reports condemning what many regard as the indiscriminate ruthlessness of the Syrian military and the Mukhabarat’s oppressive methods, ranging from torture to alleged mass prisoner executions. Similarly many are horrified by the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by opposition insurgent groups.

The barbarism of Daesh and the Nusra Front is well known, and their crimes are well documented. Groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, deemed ‘moderates’ by Arab and western governments,  have also resorted to terrorism and caused civilian deaths on numerous occasions.

Human Rights mustn’t be used as a political tool. As long as we pick and choose who to punish and who to pardon, human rights will not be firmly upheld and respected anywhere.

On the Syrian dossier, we call on the UN to condemn all violators of human rights in a balanced and proportionate way. The Syrian authorities have often complained, with some justification, about what they consider to be impartial or biased UN reports. If both sides are scrutinized fairly, President Assad’s government may feel reassured, and the Syrian government could potentially soften their position on allowing UN monitors greater access. A United Nations which protects human rights without political considerations, and slams those who abuse them, whoever they may be, would gain the trust and confidence of all parties to any conflict.

Human Rights can be upheld more effectively without resort to the traditional method of imposing economic sanctions. In the vast majority of cases, sanctioning a country has devastating impact on the civilian population as opposed to the political authorities. This is the case in Syria today. It is the Syrian people who pay the price for the alleged sins of the government. In Russia, sanctions have barely impacted Russian President Vladimir Putin or his inner circle, whilst simultaneously rallying more Russians behind their leadership who, as statistics indicate, have grown to despise the West more than ever before. We support a different approach to encouraging respect for human rights. It is our conviction that greater liaison between governments called into question and the international community can ensure that human rights abuses no longer go unchecked.

#syria #humanrights #russia


Stubbornness will only lead to more misery

Since the defeat of ISIS at the hands of the Syrian army in Deir-Ezzor, hopes have been high for the resumption of a genuine political process between the Syrian government and the western-sponsored opposition. A fresh round of Geneva negotiations is already on the agenda. Russia’s efforts, alongside Turkey and Iran, seemed to be heading in the right direction. Bashar al Assad’s meeting in Sochi with his Russian counterpart and ally, Vladimir Putin, was described to us as ‘constructive’ and ‘fruitful’, with the Syrian leader expressing his readiness for engaging in positive dialogue with all parties. Expectations, even from the usually pessimistic press, were surprisingly high.

But this optimism has little chance of living up to expectations. Any prospect for peace is always welcome, but such hopes are invariably dashed by two major obstacles: either unreasonable obstinacy, or persistent delusion.

Repeated demands by the UN-recognized opposition, that President Assad leave power at the start of any transition, or that Iran withdraw all military forces and militias (including Hezbollah) from Syria immediately, are simply unrealistic, and delusional. The armed rebel groups are not in the same position as they were prior to Russia’s intervention. They have less leverage over the Syrian government, which has regained momentum and confidence over the past two years. Russia succeeded in bolstering President Assad’s forces, giving them the upper hand on the battlefield, and allowing them to reclaim much of the territory previously conceded to the rebels, including Aleppo City, a moment in history that was a major turning point in the conflict.

Syrian President Assad’s pledge to ‘retake every inch of Syria’ would also seem unrealistic in the short term; as such an objective could never be achieved without at least another two or three years of all-out war. Whether he truly intends to retake the entire country and genuinely believes the task is possible, or whether he said this for media purposes, is irrelevant. If Syria is to have any chance of peace and national reconciliation, both the government and the moderate opposition groups must accept the realities of the current situation, whilst agreeing to negotiate in good faith and without setting preconditions.

To most objective and logical observers, it appears that a military solution is no longer viable, if it ever was: the rebels have lost some of their most important strongholds, including Aleppo, the entirety of Western Ghouta, a considerable part of Eastern Ghouta, and continue to lose ground in northern Hama. They have also lost all their gains in Latakia province, 95% of which is currently government controlled. And whilst the government’s army is advancing on multiple fronts and launching successful offensives, they are also exhausted, overstretched, suffering from a shortage in manpower, and overly reliant on Russian air support.

Despite efforts to unite the fragmented political opposition and bring the government to the table, many important factions remain excluded from the peace process. The YPG, the single most significant force in the fight against ISIS, has not been invited to Geneva. This preeminent faction of the Syrian Kurds deserves to be represented in any negotiations concerning the fate of their country. For that matter Rifaat al-Assad’s United Nationals Democratic Alliance (UNDA), is also excluded from the peace talks. As are those Syrian Baathists in the opposition, who defected several decades ago. As are most secular factions.

Figures such as Riyad Hijab, former Syrian Prime Minister who defected during the early phase of the conflict, are of no political relevance to current events. Nor is Mohamed Alloush remotely relevant. Mr Alloush, a complete unknown to the Syrian public, made his name in 2016 for attracting controversy at the Geneva peace talks merely because of his family connection to Zahran Alloush, founding-commander of Jaysh al-Islam rebel faction. As for the newly-appointed head of the ‘High Negotiations Committee’ Nasr al-Hariri,  Syrians hadn’t heard of Mr. Hariri until his comments regarding the immediate departure of the Syrian president from power only two days ago. Very few of them would even remember his name if you asked them today. Such individuals are often placed in the limelight and given media attention, without having any real public support. They represent themselves and the delegations they speak for, but they represent nobody in Syria.

The opposition delegation attending the Geneva conference is not as inclusive and representative as Mr. de Mistura believes it to be. Perhaps it is time he reconsidered his approach.


Syria as a Secular Democracy

Secularism is the single most important feature to preserve in a future Syria. Syria has been a secular state since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The secularization process, which began during the French mandate, has served as a crucial guarantee for the country’s religious and ethnic minorities. Currently the bloody civil war is perhaps reaching its concluding chapter. The danger Syrians face at this stage, at a time when the world might otherwise be focused on beginning a period of genuine democratization, is the omnipresent extremism and religious intolerance which continues to hold sway, despite the decisive victories against ISIS on the battlefield.

ISIS may soon cease to exist as an armed force. But the ideology of Daesh, that of hatred and persecution of the infidel, remains deeply entrenched at the core of conservative Islamic communities, particularly in Idlib province, some rural areas surrounding Damascus, and to a lesser extent in the city of Hama.

Prior to the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, Syrians lived together in harmony. Syria set an example for neighbouring Arab states, especially Iraq and Lebanon. Syria was a functioning and economically prosperous state with peace, security and stability. But that sense of security stems from Syria’s internationally commended national unity in the absence of religious tensions.

Secularism is the only guarantee for women’s rights. Most in the liberal west would agree that it is a woman’s choice whether or not to wear the veil. This freedom of choice is removed by the tyranny of extremist theocracies. If we are truly committed to improving Syria as a country, rather than drowning in our obsession with regime change, all aspects of Syrian society must be taken into serious consideration.

A secular and civil state, with secular state institutions, a secular constitution, and secular laws, guarantees the rights of all religious minorities, at a time of unprecedented ambiguity regarding the country’s political future. Alawites, Christians, Druze, Ismailis, and the majority of Sunnis, particularly the new generation and the educated classes, grew increasingly suspicious of the western-sponsored non-ISIS opposition, amongst concerns that they were not, in substance, that different from Daesh. A secular Syrian democracy, which maintains the rule of law, and guarantees the rights of all sectors of society, would reassure those currently living in fear and panic.

Even under the current constitution, despite the secular nature of the Baathist state, it is mandatory that the president be Muslim-born. Further, the main source of legislation is the Quran. Such laws clearly contradict the very essence of secular governance.

Treatment of migrants in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The Next Century Foundation submitted the following a written statement to the Human Rights Council in accordance with its special consultative status at the United Nations. Thirty-sixth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Agenda item 6. Universal Periodic Review of the UK:

“It is the humanitarian duty of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to offer migrants, who are often refugees from war-torn states, a fair chance to rebuild their lives. The Next Century Foundation notes the concerns expressed in the 2017 Universal Periodic Review. There are major shortcomings on the part of the British government.  Specifically:

  • The UK government is sometimes a poor listener, which can result in inefficient and ineffective dispersal of aid money. Increased communication with refugees, both in the camps to which they have been displaced in the first instance and subsequently in the UK, would inflate their esteem, morale and resolve. Most particularly with regard to those coming from war torn states, the international community in general and the UK in particular could empower local communities in the region to take control of their own destiny by giving them a voice in regard to the dispersal of international aid.
  • An effort should be made to recruit and employ teachers, doctors and nurses or others appropriately qualified who are themselves refugees within the camps wherever possible; and government aid funds should be diverted to this purpose in preference to bringing in Western teachers, doctors and nurses and others to perform these roles. This both lifts morale and provides economic support to key refugees.
  • Within the UK, there are initiatives such as Herts Welcomes Syrian Families, Refugee Action, and the Refugee Council, whose support of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme has positively affected thousands of migrants. However, the “temporary protection” which this programme permits is inadequate. Under this programme, migrants are offered the chance to study or work for a limited five year period only. We urge that this time period be extended or that they are offered fast track citizenship after five years.
  • Trained migrant professionals are often not permitted to work in the UK whilst seeking asylum. Asylum seekers should be permitted to work in the United Kingdom whilst seeking indefinite leave to remain, should they wish to do so. The asylum seekers allowance is only £36.95 a week, which is evidently very small, especially when compared to the job-seekers allowance of £73.10. It makes life incredibly tenuous and is utterly unfair, given that they are then unable to work legally and become a burden on the taxpayer. However, whilst it is extremely important that refugees and asylum seekers should have the opportunity to work in the UK, it is also important to bear in mind that safeguards need to be put in place to see that they are not exploited by employers and that they are paid a fair wage for the job that they are doing. This is of importance in preventing bad feeling and resentment on the part of indigenous workers (the “immigrants” should not be perceived as a threat to the jobs and terms/conditions of employment of UK citizens).
  • To be granted university places, all migrants whose status has yet to be determined must have lived half of their lives in the UK in order to apply as if they were native citizens. This denial of university education to the majority of young migrants whose status has yet to be determined prevents migrants from rebuilding their lives, and retaining their dignity.
  • The Lawyers’ Refugee Initiative advocates the use of humanitarian visas, or “humanitarian passports” – that is to say visas for the specific purpose of seeking asylum on arrival – issued in the country of departure or intended embarkation. We urge that this procedure be used extensively by the United Kingdom.
  • In order to speed up the processing of asylum applications and reduce legal costs and emotional strain for all involved, we recommend that the Home Office only appeal decisions in exceptional circumstances, and rarely if the case has been under consideration for more than five years. It should be a statutory duty that all appeals by the Home Office take place within one year and be grounded on strict criteria. The actual asylum application process should be based on criteria that are generous to genuine refugee claims with a mechanism for withdrawing status on conviction of a crime – and fast track citizenship after five years.

We should regard refugees, whatever their circumstance, with compassion and mercy. Compassion and Mercy are moral virtues which elevate humanity and therefore our obligation to refugees transcends any obligation we may have to accept economic migrants and / or the free movement of labour and should not be confused with any such obligation – and the UK is not yet doing enough”.

Note: The Next Century Foundation acknowledges the help of Initiatives of Change, an organisation that co-hosted the migration conference that contributed to the preparation of this submission.

Syria Can Now Heal

The Syrian conflict has reached a crucial stage. With the imminent destruction of ISIS in the east, and the creation of four major de-escalation zones to the west, the stage is set for renewed attempts to bring the fratricidal war to an end.

To the surprise of most observers, the de-escalation zones established by the United States and Russia have been respected by the warring parties. Statistics show a highly significant reduction in the number of casualties and the general level of violence. There have been a number of reconciliations between the Syrian government and factions of the moderate opposition over the past two years, particularly in the rural suburbs of Damascus, as was the case in Qudsayah and al-Hameh. Amnesty has been granted to insurgents and army-defectors, something we never saw during the initial phase of the crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined his objectives in Syria in an interview with Charlie Rose in late September 2015, emphasising three major points:

  1. The importance of the fight against terrorism to Russia’s national security
  2. The importance of preserving Syrian statehood
  3. “…creating the necessary conditions for the political process” to resume

Now that the first two objectives have been satisfied, there is no reason to delay the third. Unlike previous attempts, the new round of peace talks must include the entire spectrum of the opposition and the Syrian government. All factions of the Syrian people must be represented. Picking and choosing some opposition groups to speak on behalf of the others is unacceptable. Further, those who take the lead at the negotiating table should represent Syrians on the ground.  Certain figures in the opposition have no real political relevance and are unknown to Syrians, yet they are constantly put in the forefront when they head the mainstream opposition delegations.

There is a serious concern amongst religious minorities that an extremist Islamist system is the only alternative to the current government, and this fear has often been ignored. Western governments that have enthusiastically supported certain opposition groups must recognize and understand this fear. Controversial entities such as Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh al-Islam are often legitimized as part of the acceptable opposition despite their explicit hatred of “the infidel” and allegations of their involvement in mass killings of civilians alongside the Nusra Front. Promoting a secular and democratic Syria is hardly compatible with the vision of Islamist hardliners. Secularism is the only guarantee for the safety of religious minorities in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.

The Geneva peace process is to be seen in tandem, and not in conflict, with Astana. One should complement the other. The Astana agreements have materialised, providing a solid basis for the Geneva talks to generate positive results and build on the successes of Astana.

Finally, both sides should act in good faith. The only priority must be the interests of the Syrian people. For the talks to succeed, both sides must be prepared for compromise and willing to make reasonable concessions. Imposing preconditions at this stage is counterproductive. It has become clear that there cannot be a viable military solution to the Syrian conflict, and no side can achieve a decisive military victory over the other.

Poland’s authoritarian turn?

The recent decision by Poland’s government to pass a law that weakens the judiciary’s independence raises concerns on the overall soundness of the Polish democratic system. The law by which the government acquires de facto control of the Supreme Court represents a heavy blow dealt to one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary.

Such a decision is a cause for great concern as it represents the pinnacle of a more general trend of recent reforms that are dismantling the democratic tissue of the Country. Since 2015, Law and Justice, also known as PiS – the ruling right-wing populist party in Poland – has been implementing policies and reforms aimed at limiting civil liberties, controlling media and dismantling some of the major checks and balances in place since the end of the Soviet era. While the European Union is closely looking into this delicate issue and threatening the activation of a sanctions mechanism, protests broke out all over the country in response to this illiberal conduct from the Polish government.

Such an immoral turn for Polish politics, however, was hardly unexpected. The PiS is an unorthodox populist party whose members are unpredictable mavericks with no sense of responsibility. Playing games with people’s rights is standard procedure for them. The most glaring example is the controversial immigration policy in force in the country since 2015. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq have been progressively denied asylum in Poland on a simple matter of religious belief. Poland indeed is one of those eastern European countries which has recently engaged in the contentious strategy of favouring Christian refugees as eligible for their resettlement scheme.

While a blade, a bullet or a bomb does not make any distinction between a Christian or a Muslim refugee making all men equal when faced with war or persecution, the enlightened leaders of Poland cynically reserve the right to decide on the fate of thousands of innocent lives on the grounds of their religious faith. Fairly odd for a country which suffered similar discrimination and illiberal laws not such a long time ago and whose social identity is proudly claimed to be based on Christian values. But as we all know, people have a bad memory and they learn very little from history. Do not be surprised if democratic countries such as Poland in 2017 still impose limits on civil liberties, still exert control over media or judiciary, still discriminate against people on grounds of religion. Sit down and make yourself comfortable, a new era of populism is about to start.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Human Rights in the Syrian Arab Republic

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 4 “Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of human rights violations in the Syrian Arab Republic. The Next Century Foundation urged the Syrian Arab Republic to establish a mechanism to monitor prisons and provide safeguards that ensure abuse and torture in the country is brought to an end.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Discrimination and Intolerance against Women

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.

Saving Syria: Sami’s Peace Plan


What follows was first published on Neil Partrick’s blog:

Sami Khiyami was the Syrian ambassador to the UK until March 2012. As the fighting in his home country raged and his recommendations were ignored, he asked President Assad to allow him to resign his post. After some deliberation Assad reluctantly agreed to what Khiyami wanted, on the understanding that he would not be defecting but simply stepping aside.

Since then Sami Khiyami, like many Syrians, has been based in neighbouring Lebanon. For more than a year he has been trying to build support for a peace plan designed to cut through the impasse of Assad’s determination, backed by Russia and Iran, to remain in power, and the western and Gulf-backed opposition’s demand that he go as soon as a transitional deal is brokered and that state power be transferred to those outside of his regime.

Speaking to Mr Khiyami in Beirut I was struck by the clarity of his thinking. Notwithstanding the obvious difficulty of somehow achieving contradictory outcomes, Khiyami is clear-sighted that, alongside Assad remaining president until a transitional phase of four to five years is complete, there needs to be an appointed assembly of vetted men and women without a partisan background to serve as legislators and to whom an interim government, that they appoint, would be answerable. It is this constituent assembly (CA) that needs, by international, regional and above all Syrian agreement to become the locus of actual power, he argues.

Obviously any deal would have to be backed by the foreign states augmenting the firepower of all sides of the war, but how, I asked Sami, would Syrian fighters with seemingly everything to lose be brought into the equation? He advocates a joint military council of what he calls “moderate regime and rebel fighters” who would be answerable to the CA. The military council (MC) would restructure and re-establish the armed forces as a common Syrian national military answerable not to the President or any other part of the current Damascus regime, nor to any rebel force, but to the CA. The CA would also oversee the reformation of the police on what is envisaged as non-partisan lines.

It made me wonder how Assad, his regime circle, and their foreign backers could believe that their man would survive what would be nothing less than a refashioning of the Syrian state. If control of state force is no longer in the hands of the regime, how could Assad believe that he (and his family) would be physically safe, let alone remain president? Of course it would be understood by all parties that the transition of the country under the CA would necessarily be followed by open and peaceable elections. In such circumstances Assad, should he wish to stand, would be an unlikely victor. He and his backers would have to accept that such an outcome is likely, and that very acceptance would, Sami believes, provide the basis for his Syrian enemies to accept, and indeed guarantee, that he could be a part of the transitional arrangements, even if he would be in office but not really in power. This of course is the position that western powers, including the US, and, it seems, even the Saudis have finally come round to. It might, but only might, be something that Russia would back too. If it did, it would be harder for Iran and ultimately Assad to reject. A deal that some, including former Finnish president and global diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, claim could have been fashioned several years ago with the backing of Russia, preventing the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, might now be possible.

Set against this of course are Assad’s territorial advances. At such a time why on earth would he concede power to a CA, however dispassionate Sami Khiyami claims such a body would be? One answer perhaps is that the CA he has in mind really would be a neutral body, or as neutral could be expected in a country polarised by one family’s rule for half a century, not to mention over five years of bloody conflict. The other, more relevant, reason for Assad might be that he knows territorial advances in battle do not equal peace, or anything like it. The war is far from over. The Russian-US-Turkish agreement on de-escalation zones in some parts of the north-west, east and south of the country, whether they hold or not, only emphasises the limited writ of the Syrian regime. The south is currently largely under the control of Gulf and Jordanian-backed rebels, while part of the north-east is a Syrian-Kurdish zone backed by US forces who are based there as part of the anti-IS campaign. Iran remains an important regional ally of the regime, assisting, via Hizbollah and Iraqi allies, the authority of Assad’s forces in the western and eastern border areas. Assad may therefore believe his regime can survive, but there is little to suggest it can control the country. A regime that doesn’t control the territory of the state, let alone have the acceptance of most of its inhabitants, will always be vulnerable.

Sami Khiyami’s plan seeks to put the control of the whole territory and machinery of the state in the hands of a CA appointed via a two stage process designed to ensure that popularly accepted figures run the country until the country is stable enough for an elected authority to do so. He recommends that the UN approve 1,000 Syrians who will meet inside Syria, no doubt under international protection, to determine a 50-member Council of the Wise (CoW) – elders or venerated people, not regime or rebel apparatchiks. The CoW will in turn choose 200 respected and able Syrian personalities to serve as members of the CA. The latter will in turn appoint the executive authority.

The idea behind this rather convoluted process is to avoid an Afghan scenario whereby a loya jirga was shepherded by the UN after the fall of the Taliban to rubber stamp a predetermined new government. The UN’s role in Syria would be to assist in starting the transitional arrangements. In fact Sami is busy working, with Syrian colleagues, on 2,000 names that can be given to the UN to assist it in its task in coming up with 1,000 people to begin the transitional process. Once the 1,000 Syrians meet, this becomes exclusively a Syrian process and out of UN hands other than, hopefully, being endorsed by the UN Security Council. Despite wanting to circumvent the absurdity of talk of elections in a country where politics is secondary to territorial struggle, Sami envisages that a simple yes/no referendum could be conducted once the CA is set up. This he says could give the transitional process some popular Syrian legitimacy. It isn’t clear what happens if the answer is no, but Sami is confident that a clear majority would back it.

However it’s obvious that key to just getting this process started is the connivance, at the very least, of the foreign backers of the regime, the rebels and of opposition political figures, as well as the approval of many of the key Syrians themselves. He assumes that the takfiris will have to be crushed – whether by regime, Kurds or western forces – because they will never agree to a peace process. The difficulty with this argument is that there are many Syrian Sunni Islamist fighters, some connected to Gulf and western governments, who seek to delegitimise their opponents on religious grounds. The regime or Russian definition of takfiris is essentially any Islamist rebel fighter. Yet all sides, including those Islamist militants who aren’t nihilists, will somehow have to agree to Sami’s ideas.

The proposed MC will be pivotal. Without it functioning effectively, the CA cannot be the source of power in the country. If power comes from the barrel of a gun, as Mao observed, then the MC will be needed by the CA to ensure it controls the state. Otherwise the CA will be a talking shop with no relevance to what really happens in Syria. If the latter scenario appears likely then neither Assad, his family, or the significant numbers of military rebels that Sami envisages signing up to the process will come on board. Sami argues that there are “uncontaminated” military men on the regime and opposition side who can find a way to work together. That said, many Sunni Islamist rebel leaders will need to cooperate with the MC too.

However, as all key foreign states now seem to accept that Assad can remain in the transitional period, and even perhaps stand for election should a presidential system be agreed for the future state of Syria, then this may be the moment to explore Sami’s ideas further. Perhaps there are enough members of the Syrian great and the good, or at least those who are relatively uncorrupted and untarnished, to finally put an end to the horror.

Key parts of the Peace Plan:

  • 1,000 member body approved by UN >
  • This body chooses 50 member Council of the Wise (CoW) >
  • CoW chooses 200 member Constituent Assembly (CA)>
  • Referendum to approve or disapprove of CA>
  • CA appoints Government and Military Council; CA directs the transitional process for up to five years>
  • National elections to determine a new government

Raqqa’s Civilians: The Weapons, or the Collateral, of War?


Since 2015, the US-backed coalition the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian-backed Assad army have regained many of the IS strongholds, diminishing the presence of Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

Most recently in July 2017, the recapture of the city of Mosul spread both national and international hope that the current capital of ISIS’ ‘Caliphate,’ the Syrian city of Raqqa, will now face the same fate.

With the battle now well underway, Nowruz Ahmed, who sits on the military council of the SDF, claimed that the city will be recaptured within no more than two months. Such a statement has been endorsed enthusiastically by the international community.

Amidst such an encouraging prediction, the effect on the civilians held hostage in the IS stronghold will be devastating unless action is taken immediately. In Mosul alone, an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed due to (among many factors), (i) the immense firepower used to extract IS fighters from the city, and (ii) IS’ brutality against civilians, especially using them as ‘human shields’ against the incoming enemy.

Western governments estimate that approximately 18,000-25,000 Syrians remain in the besieged city of Raqqa, with an estimated 50% being children. The City had a prewar population of a quarter of a million and any estimate of the number of civilians still present has to be little more than a guess. Save The Children has called for an immediate ceasefire of fighting, on all sides, to allow civilians to escape safely from the city.

US-backed SDF fighters are working tirelessly to extract civilians from the city. However, reports from Raqqa suggest IS fighters have caught onto this fact, so are concealing themselves as SDF soldiers in order to recapture fleeing civilians. Once recaptured, civilians are either tortured and executed, or added to IS’ growing (guesstimates range from 7,000-20,000 large) human shield.

A dilemma arises for the international community. How should we help the oppressed civilians in Raqqa amidst growing violence? In attempting to safely extract them from the city, it is clear a huge amount of suffering is accrued. Nonetheless, by not working to extract civilians, they risk making more civilians the collateral of the war against IS. If the SDF and Assad forces use the same immense firepower in Raqqa as our allies did in Mosul, it means the civilians of Raqqa will suffer the same fate as the civilians of Mosul.

However, with the best intention, we cannot concur with Save The Children that a cease-fire is the right option. IS’ heinous treatment of civilians highlights their desperateness to maintain their strong hold over Raqqa. In any case, a cease-fire is highly unlikely as it would give credence to their Caliphate. More turmoil would likely result.

Placing a prediction on the length of the operation to remove IS from Raqqa, as Nowruz Ahmed did, is not wise. The operation must conform to standards of warfare worthy of the UN charter, therefore must first and foremost protect the safety of civilians. The fight to eradicate IS cannot be conducted without respect for the Geneva Conventions.