The US-Russian brokered ceasefire between the Assad government and the rebels went into effect Monday evening Damascus time. The plan is for a cessasation of violence between the American-backed Syrian rebels and the Assad government over the next week to allow humanitarian aid for hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Despite a “rocky start” to the ceasefire, US Secretary Kerry expressed hope that it will pave the way for a political solution. Regardless, if the ceasefire does succeed as a confidence building measure into the peace process, the crisis must be resolved through multilateral, rather than bilateral, negotiations to end the five year civil war.
Bilateralism is the idea of two parties negotiating a mutual consensus to resolve a conflict. Multilateralism, on the other hand, is the idea of multiple parties negotiating on an agreement and that is what has to happen in Syria. Considering the dynamics on the ground, a resolution to the Syrian crisis will only ensure regional stability if outside parties who are impacted by the conflict have a say on the resolution, for a few reasons.
The first reason why the Syrian civil war needs to be resolved on a regional basis is because of the role of external patrons. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have certain interests in the Syrian conflict and are supporting some of the more radical elements of the Syrian opposition. A good example of this is the newly formed rebel coalition, “Army of Conquest.” In May of 2015, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar helped broker a coalition of various Syrian rebel factions, including Jubhat Fatah al-Sham (formally known as Jubhat al-Nusra), into one rebel army that saw significant gains in the Idlib province against Assad.
The Nusra Front changed its name to Fatah al-Sham and split with Al-Qaeda in order to join other rebel factions. Even Al-Qaeda has acknowledged that it was not an ideological split, but rather a symbolic gesture to other rebels. This makes it harder to negotiate an agreement because Fatah al-Sham will probably not be invited nor want to participate in negotiations brokered by the US and Russia. Thus, having Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey at the negotiating table and hearing their interests could allow them, as the Army of Conquest’s external patrons, to push the more radical forces of the opposition to lay down their arms when their is an agreement.
Another reason is for there to be multilateral negations is because of the Syrian refugee crisis. A political solution to the Syrian civil war might end the violence and influx of refugees, but the “spillover” will persist if the refugees are not taken care of. But how will that be done? Will they return to Syria? will they be offered citizenship in their host countries? Will they go to a third country or will it be a mix of the three? In order for these questions to be answered, the Syrians, the host countries and potential third countries that can host them need to discuss a solution.
The three countries that have absorbed the most Syrian refugees are Turkey with 2.7 million, Lebanon with 1 million and Jordan with 650,000. Therefore, there needs to be multilateral negotiations between the Syrians, the host countries (Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan) and potential third countries – perhaps the Gulf States and some Western nations – that can take some of the refugees in order for them to compromise and coordinate how the refugees crisis will be resolved. If they do not, then the violence may end in Syria, but it will persist in countries like Lebanon and Turkey who have suffered many attacks due to the spillover of the civil war.
Finally, the Syrian civil war must be resolved through multilateral negotiations because of the role of foreign fighters. Unfortunately, the crisis has developed into a conflict, not just between the rebels and Assad, but into a broader sectarian conflict where people across the region have come to fight on the side they support. Some of the countries with the most foreign fighters in Syria are Tunisia with 6,000, Saudi Arabia with 2,500 and Jordan with 2,000. Many speculated that once the conflict ends,the foreign fighters will return to their homelands with incentives to conduct terrorist attacks after fighting alongside organizations such as Fatah al-Sham and Daesh. Tunisia and Jordan are two countries worth noting because they are both in a crucial time of political reform.
Tunisia has been regarded as perhaps the only, Arab country to successfully and safely transition into a democracy after the Arab Spring. For example, they were international praised for their relatively free and fair elections in 2014 and, in 2015, Washington-based NGO Freedom of House listed Tunisia as the first Arab country as “free” since 1975. However, Tunisian is recently experienced political instability and terrorism.
The government of former Prime Minister Habib Essidi collapssed as he stepped down after receiving a no-confidence vote on July 30th of this year, mostly due to lack of economic progress and a rise in terrorism. Youseff Chehad, the Prime Minister designate, received a majority of votes in favor from parliament for his newly formed unity government to hopefully re-stabilize the situation. Nevertheless, with “three high profile terrorist attacks” in 2015 and one in March 2016, the latter claimed by Daesh, national security will be essential for the preservation of the newly “free” Arab nation. With over 6,000 foreign fighters potentially returning from Syria, one has to wonder if Tunisia is “prepared for the return of thousands of Islamic State fighters?”
Jordan is in a similar situation. With an estimated 2,000-2,500 foreign fighters in Syria, Amman could be facing a similar security threat as it did between 2002-2005. Many Jordanians went to Iraq to fight alongside Al-Aqeda in Iraq after the US’ invasion. As a result, when they came back, they not only brought back their weapons, but their experiences and radicalization, which led to several terrorist attacks, including the most notorious one in 2005 with the bombing of three hotels that killed 60 people. Since June, Daesh seems to have committed a few attacks on Jordanian soil, but it would be even more devastating if they were Jordanian nationals who could camouflage amongst the community, especially given that this is a critical moment in Jordan’s transition to democracy.
In March, Jordan’s King Abdullah passed the “Election Law,” which he says will help move Jordan “from the one-person,one-vote electoral system to a proportional system based on open lists.” The Hashemite Kingdom has traditionally held a one-person one-vote system, forcing people to vote based on their tribal allegiances rather than voting for what could be a more representative political bloc. This new election law could help boost Jordan’s democratic credentials with the upcoming parliamentary elections in a week from now. However, given how unenthusiastic Jordanians appear to be with the upcoming elections, with previous elections allegedly rigged, potential terrorist attacks from Jordanian nationals on behalf of al-Sham or Daesh will devastate Jordan’s national democratic process.
As we can see, Tunisia and Jordan are in critical moments in their political reformation, but nationals returning from Syria could disrupt their development through terrorist attacks. Therefore, if they are going to be safe, they must participate in the Syrian peace process. Being at the negotiating table will enable Tunisia and Jordan to discuss how they can coordinate a possible screening process with the transitional Syrian government before their nationals leave Syria.
In sum, assuming there is a diplomatic breakthrough in the Syrian peace process within the next week, the United States and Russia must broker a round of multilateral negotiations. Countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and other regional players must be allowed to participate in the peace process. Given how they are invested in and impacted by the conflict, a resolution to the Syrian civil war will not ensure sufficient regional security unless it is resolved through a regional consensus.