The conflict in Syria could continue throughout 2013 and well into next year if there is no ceasefire and political settle-ment.
Unfortunately for Syrian civilians caught between the army and rebels, no settlement is in sight because the government and the political opposition refuse to talk to each other. Instead, both sides put forward unrealistic transition proposals.
President Bashar al-Assad's plan calls for external parties to stop arming rebels and a halt to Syrian army military operations, excepting those protecting state interests. Once a ceasefire is in place, the government would summon “Syrian individuals and political parties” to take part in national dialogue with the aim of drawing up a charter which would be put to a referendum and lead to parliamentary elections and formation of a new government.
His proposal was dismissed by the political opposition and its Western supporters who insist that he must step down before the transition from his rule to a new system begins.
The main opposition organisation, the Syrian National Co- alition, has also agreed on a peace plan, described in London Arabic daily al-Hayat. This plan proposes the formation of an interim government which would “exercise its powers in liberated areas.”
Assad would step down and the interim government would assume executive and legislative powers. The current government, parliament, security agencies and the military’s Fourth Armoured Division andRepublican Guard would be dissolved. Political prisoners would be released. The army would return to barracks in accordance with an agreement by the rebel Free Syrian Army. A national conference would convene and establish a transitional government.
This plan is unrealistic because Assad will not step down and abolish the agencies that keep him in power. The army will not leave the field of battle until the rebels do, and nothing is said about extremist jihadi groups which dominate the struggle against the government.
No mention of dialogue is mentioned in the opposition plan while Assad’s proposal rules out talks with Western-sponsored opponents, “terrorists” and jihadis. Implementation is predicated on the defeat of one side or the other. Which will not happen any time soon.
To break this deadlock, UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi could - as he has hinted - place the Syrian crisis before the Security Council if he manages to persuade the US and Russia to work together instead of insisting on victory for one side or the other.
Brahimi and representatives of the US and Russia are due to meet on Friday to try to reach agreement on implementation of a plan put forward last June in Geneva. This plan would, in theory, end violence and lead to the formation of a transitional government. According to the Geneva accord, Assad would not be required to step down at the outset of the transitional period.
Assad has serious reasons to resist ouster at this time. If he is toppled, slain or forced out, the institutions of the state could crumble and resistance by Syria's armed forces to the rebel onslaught could collapse. In spite of his brutal handling of the 22-month revolt, he remains the head of the armed struggle against squabbling, competing rebel groups which, if there was no resistance, would grab power at local levels and fight each other - as is already happening.
Syria could become another Somalia, a land fractured by rival sectarian, jihadi and local militias, or follow the example of Algeria where, during the 1990s, the government took a decade to suppress an uprising by fundamentalists.
These scenarios would be far worse than what has happened in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion and occupation. US troops imposed a modicum of stability and security in Iraq until the end of 2011, permitting Iraqis to rebuild some of the state institutions dissolved by the US after its conquest of Iraq.
The only way to secure an end to Syria's conflict is for Assad to talk to the Western-sponsored Syrian National Coalition which must agree to preserve the armed forces, security agencies and police, civil service and administration. Without these assets the state will not survive. Once peace is imposed, purges and reforms could be carried out.
Opposition groups based in Syria - such as the National Coordination Board and Building the Syrian State - could bridge the gap between the two sides by conducting indirect talks. Once talks begin, both sides must halt the armed struggle. While clashes continue, troops and rebels will vie for advantage that could be translated into leverage on the political level.
This is easier said than done. The political opposition does not command or control militias in the field or have much influence with their foreign sponsors. While some rebels might agree to ceasefire, jihadis have vowed to fight to the finish. Some army units and pro-government militias may also reject a truce. The political leaderships would have to cooperate to achieve an end to violence. But first they have to talk to each other.