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Can Decentralization Help Tackle the Syrian Crisis?

Can Decentralization Help Tackle the Syrian Crisis?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), an influential European think tank, just recently published a policy brief, To end a war: Europe?s role in bringing peace to Syria, penned by Julien Barnes-Dacey. According to him, Europeans should give up demanding a "transition" in Damascus to fall back on adjustments of Assad regime plans on the basis of a dose of decentralization or at least "devolution" in certain parts of the country.

Some of the presuppositions of the document, I can support to a certain extent. Thus, the Assad regime won the war against its opposition: this is true of course, even if in fact the Russians and the Iranians were the ones to have rolled the national armed opposition – not the regime. The center of gravity of the political game, according to the ECFR, now lies in the process of de-escalation launched by the Russians and joined by the Turks and the Iranians, and at least in part the Americans. This is also true, although on should not omit the risk of returning geopolitical flame-ups (non-compliance with the cease-fire by the regime, friction between Americans and pro-regime forces on the Euphrates, growing probability of Israeli military action on Hezbollah, various tensions around Kurdish affairs for example).

The paper also presents other presuppositions, that are plausible yet not demonstrated: Europeans might have a window of opportunity to act because the Russians now have an interest in a political agreement and because the regime, while having won, has been weakened enough to seek means to consolidate its grip over the country. Similarly, the Astana agreement and the other partial ceasefire arrangements are only sustainable if they are part of a national "political framework". What political framework could be imagined'

This is where the central idea of "devolution" emerges: the regime could come to recognize a dose of local autonomy, including when it comes to security, in regions where the opposition the opposition would abandon the combat and recognize the authority of the central government. The role of Europe could be to favor such a "de-escalation-devolution" scheme first on the political level by recognizing the legitimacy of Assad and the sovereignty of his power over the whole territory, then by offering humanitarian aid and stabilization credits encouraging parties to agree on this basis.  

Humor has at times been defined as a "suspension of disbelief". Mr. Barnes-Dacey practices a particularly dark form of humor here. The idea that a victorious Assad could keep his word and respect as a “good boy” a national agreement recognizing a form of autonomy to whole sections of the Syrian territory takes a surprisingly blind approach. The restraint of a decentralized system of this type is totally at odds with everything we know about the nature of the regime and its claimed ambition to take entirely over the territory in full, of course according to its usual methods. At the very most, he would be able to create here and there appearances of concessions – always reversible – in order to obtain his rehabilitation by the Europeans and the funds feeding the pockets of his friends.

The "softening of the regime" by de-escalation and devolution (all accompanied by the relegitimization of the regime) is nevertheless the central proposal of the ECFR document. In reality, it consists in launching the European humanitarian cavalry to the rescue of the Assad regime. It should not be deceived: this proposal could be a hit with European officials, in the institutions based in Brussels or certain other capitals. It is adorned with the prestige of realism since it puts forward the idea according to which one must adapt to the observation of the victory of the regime. The paper of the ECFR hammers that there will be no transition of power to Damascus. The proposal of Julien Barnes-Dacey also offers Europe the appearance of a role to play. Above all, if it had the slightest chance of being applicable, it would respond to the twofold concern to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people and to provide incentives for the return of refugees.

In reality, of course, it would be quite different. It is unlikely that many Syrian refugees in Europe would return to their homeland under such conditions. Unhappy exiles in neighboring countries, many of whom touch the depths of despair and some have already begun to come back, could be tempted by this little music: “Assad is softened and Europe takes care of the return of electricity”. Yet the men, the young and the not-so young, would have every chance of undergoing forced conscription, at least, and all would find the same conditions of arbitrariness and oppression as formerly. It would be a heavy responsibility to encourage them to resettle at home.

A corollary of Barnes-Dacey’s thesis is that Europeans should deter Americans from risking an escalation with the Iranians or Russians on the banks of the Euphrates. Thanks to “devolution”, the areas liberated from the Islamic State could return in good conditions to the lap of Assad and the Kurdish question would find by the miracle formula of “devolution” a satisfactory solution both for the Kurds themselves, for Ankara and for Damascus.

A debate on this document, which took place on 22 September 2017 at the ECFR in Paris, showed that the author of the document does not really give an answer to the objection of the lack of credibility of his idea of “devolution”. He reiterated that it would be in the interest of the regime, especially at the moment when it seems to have gained, to make gestures to appease the most difficult areas of the country. Without such gestures – allowing for a “soft reintegration” of rebel areas – he will not be able to truly consolidate his power. Alas, the question is not what would be the well-understood interest of the regime, but the way in which it reasons. So the ECFR paper has at least the merit of bringing a kind of demonstration by the absurd of a basic datum: Europeans’ only cards to play in this tragic game is their recognition or lack of recognition of the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad, and an economic leverage, potential at least. They would be wrong to discard it in order to advance a seemingly seductive solution that is in fact inapplicable in the Syrian context.

So how may Europeans adapt to the current situation of the "victory of Assad and his supporters"? One might be tempted to say, first of all, that if we are to negotiate on Syria, we should do so with the real patrons of the country: Russia and Iran. This is one of the unchallengeable assumptions of President Macron’s contact group proposal. This presupposition is likely to be all the more relevant, as we see a rise in geopolitical tension throughout the region. The classical core of the P5 (the five permanent members of the Security Council) offers a good framework to begin the discussion – the day when the Russians in particular would really consider it necessary to reach a political agreement.

In this perspective, the role of Europeans is not to change their fundamentals, but to specify the parameters which they consider indispensable to a political settlement. Among these, "deconcentration" or other nuances of federalization may be an element, but one that must be weighed with the utmost care: experiences of federalism in the region (Iraq, Yemen) have not proved to be particularly promising; it is not a country recovering from a terrible crisis that would lend itself best to this type of experimentation; and finally all the work of experts shows that in reality a strong State is required to successfully introduce elements of "deconcentration" or "devolution".

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