A frequent refrain from all parties to the conflict in Syria – whether it is the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or President Assad himself – is that it is for Syrians to determine the future of Syria.
Nobody can argue with this preposition in principle but it hides a more complex utility that sets the horizon for where the country is going.
In the absence of an agreed mechanism for how Syrians can determine their future, the statement that they should do so becomes somewhat vacuous, a holding card of moral signalling devoid of any substance or sign of political will to make it a reality.
April’s chemical attack has seemingly shaken up the politics around the conflict and brought questions as to America’s role back to the fore. While Trump’s Syria policy is unlikely to be predictable it’s worth trying to game out the kind of processes Washington could envisage for Syria’s eventual transition from war to peace.
Will elections be the determining factor? Syrians have voted regularly in the past in limited displays of Baathist democracy which the Assads have used to shore up their legitimacy. The most recent incarnation of this ceremony happened in 2014 when President Assad won some 88 percent of the vote.
The election had no discernible impact on events on the ground and was seen as effectively closing-off the discussions around Assad’s exit from power that were taking place in Geneva or western capitals.
What makes elections a particularly interesting mechanism going forward is that just over 50 percent of the pre-war population of Syria currently lives under regime control.
Millions of internally displaced Syrians and five million refugees must also be factored into the equation. While Syrian refugees face the continued challenges of under-funded humanitarian programming and increasingly resentful host populations, the London Conference of 2016 did make significant steps towards recognising the protracted nature of their displacement and agreed upon measures to ensure them access to work and education.
The notion of being connected and active democratic players in Syria’s future could help ensure that refugees are empowered agents of change rather than a hyper-marginalised “burden”.
What is more, Syria’s vast and dynamic diaspora, estimated by some to make up over 10 million Syrians, could and should have a say. Organisations such as Jusoor are already doing sterling work in this regard, their mission is to support Syria by “drawing on the vast talents and experience of our global members to overcome the challenges the country faces”.
Transitioning from employment and skills training to a focus on democratic and civic engagement is by no means easy. But the larger the pool of Syrians engaged in a future electoral process, the more the narrative stating that the fate of the future isn’t solely about one man, can be strengthened.
For too long, discussions about the future of Syria have focused on visions of Syria itself rather than the visions of Syrians. Instead of vacuous talk of “transition,” efforts should be focused on a mechanism that can harness and channel the global Syrian population into decisions as to the future of their country.
To some extent this is already happening. UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters in March that the Geneva process may seem grindingly slow to people on the outside but it was making difficult progress. As he put it “the train is ready, it is in the station… it is warming up its engine”.
The train that de Mistura speaks of is born out of UN Security Council resolution 2254, which was adopted by the council in 2015.
This laid the foundations for a political transition based on three “baskets”: Accountable governance, a new constitution and UN-supervised elections within 18 months.
Recent talks added a fourth “basket” on “counter-terrorism” to satisfy demands from Damascus. The theory of change as far as de Mistura seems to be concerned, is that regardless of events on the ground, if progress towards establishing and expanding on the baskets is made, the process will suddenly have a momentum of its own, and the train will truly be on its way.
There is a strong logic to this strategy although the chemical attack, the suicide bombing of civilians being evacuated from Foah and Kefraya and the general disintegration of the nominal ceasefire highlight the frighteningly difficult context in which de Mistura is trying to operate.
Indicidents such as these, and the countless others that preceded them over the past few months slow down progress towards meeting the milestones that de Mistura originally charted out.
I would argue that progress outside of Syria with the diaspora and refugee populations can help build a momentum around the notion of the UN-supervised elections, whenever that prospect becomes a reality.
The key to this is that it is impossible to argue against the essential notion of giving Syrians a say over the future of Syria. The devil will be in the detail as to who is allowed to vote, who is allowed to run, what political mechanism will process votes into what share, how supervision of the elections will take place, and crucially, whether people will accept the results.
Much of this will be addressed in constitutional discussions, which is perhaps why Russia was eager to draft its own suggested version.
Although progress towards de Mistura’s four baskets has not dominated the headlines in ways that the conflict’s violence sadly does, it provides a glimmer of hope for the future, and if accentuated by a wider ambition about harnessing the power of Syria’s refugees and diaspora, it combines to give essential agency to Syrians in determining the future of Syria.