(This article was co-authored with Richard Javad Heydarian.*)

Almost 18 months after the onset of popular-democratic protests, the Syrian revolution increasingly resembles a bloody marathon with no clear finish line on the horizon. Unlike the “lightning” revolutions in North Africa, namely Tunisia and Egypt, which took only few weeks to overthrow Arab strongmen such as Mubarak and Ben Ali, the Syrian uprising has instead replicated a “slow-motion disintegration” of the rich tapestry that has characterized the Syrian society for centuries.

Undoubtedly, Syria is at the epicenter of one of the bloodiest and most unfortunate conflicts in recent times, raising the specter of international intervention and prolonged humanitarian crisis.

There is no way to understate the depth of the unfolding tragedy: there have been almost 20,000 civilians killed, with 2.5 million (and counting) internally displaced people in need of urgent humanitarian need, and more than 200,000 people fleeing the country just to arrive at cramped refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.  I was able to visit Damascus and Homs a few months ago and had a first-hand look at the tragic unfolding of events.

As the armed revolution enters the two large cities of Aleppo and Damascus, the humanitarian tragedy, unfortunately, is set to further deepen in scope and duration, unless all relevant parties (domestic and international) begin to commit themselves to a peaceful and effective political solution. Thus, the first priority should be the following: (1) Imposition of a ceasefire, under the aegis of the UN, on both sides of the conflict to end the bloodshed and provide necessary space for a genuine political dialogue; and (2) An immediate end to the ongoing proxy war that is fuelling an ‘internal arms race’, whereby Western and Arab powers have resorted to arming (directly or indirectly) rebels and extremist elements to topple the regime through sheer violence and terror.

With the Syrian regime losing its grip over a growing proportion of the territory, it is also imperative for the Philippine government to explore channels of communication with the opposition forces to ensure the safety of thousands OFWS in Syria, while utilizing varying international fora, including the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), to encourage a unified, peaceful international response to the Syrian crisis.

A State of War

What initially began as a non-violent demand for political liberalization and social justice has gradually morphed into a large-scale sectarian conflict, which has placed varying ethnic and religious groups on a collision course.

Notwithstanding the almost universal demand for democracy amongst the Syrian population, what we are witnessing is the frightening possibility of a Sunni-dominated opposition – spearheaded by a less-than-moderate Muslim Brotherhood and buttressed by the inflow of armed extremists – waging an ‘all out war’ on not only the Alewite sect that has stood by President Assad and his regime, but also all minority groups, such as the Christians and Shiites, invested in the Baathist party.

We should bear in mind that the Syrian uprisings – similar to those in Egypt and Tunisia – were largely found upon secular principles of tolerance, justice, and democracy. Yet, unfortunately we are inching closer to the possible emergence of a post-Assad state, whereby reactionary and radical elements could replace the current regime with an even less tolerant political system, underpinned by undemocratic ‘majoritarian rule’, ultra-conservative values, and perhaps (most ominously) vengeance and purging of ‘all remnants’ of the ancien regime.

As Assad’s forces struggle to hold on to their traditional strongholds in Aleppo and Damascus, the Alewite community – fearing a meltdown in the capital – is already hedging its bets by withdrawing to and fortifying its position in the northeastern mountainous regions as well as the coastline cities of Latakia and Tartus (incidentally, the site of numerous visits by Russian and Iranian naval forces). Ultimately, if the regime loses control over the capital, it might choose to withdraw to these areas and create a separate enclave, defended by its massive stockpile of WMDs and advanced armaments.

The Kurds, meanwhile, have chosen to stay out of the revolution and extend their networks of cooperation with their Kurdish brethren in Iraq (and possibly in Turkey too), while consolidating de facto jurisdiction over the oil-rich Northeastern regions, bordering Turkey and Iraq.

The regime may have already lost its ‘political hegemony’ in much of the countryside, with self-governing revolutionary councils filling in the political vacuum, while rebel groups have been expanding and strengthening their operations in denying the regime much-needed mobility and tactical space. They have already been busy with blocking the highly strategic Latakia-Aleppo highway to choke-off Assad’s forces – forcing the regime to increasingly rely on its airforce.

Central cities such as Hama and Homs – traditional hotbed of uprisings – are anything but under the control of the state, forcing the regime to occasionally resort to artillery shelling, helicopter gunships, and carpet bombardments to exert a semblance of ‘tactical’ control.

In essence, what you increasingly have are self-governing communities (or revolutionary councils) in much of the country, intermittently rocked by massacres and ‘hit and run’ operations by both the regime (and associated militia elements) as well as the armed opposition.

With both the opposition and the regime locked into a state of war, the only way to end the bloodshed is if the international community comes to its senses and forges a unified and effective response under the auspices of the UN.

A Divided International Community

If anything, there is hardly an existing ‘international community’ as far as Syria is concerned. There are basically three camps on this conflict.

The first camp is composed of anti-Assad hawks, mainly NATO powers as well as Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, which are determined to dislodge the regime in Damascus to checkmate their main regional adversary, Iran. The Assad regime is the strategic node that has allowed Iran to project its influence beyond the immediate Sunni-dominated Persian Gulf neighborhood, allowing Tehran to establish the so-called ‘Shia Crescent’ from Eastern Afghanistan to the Eastern Mediterranean – much to the dismay of Washington and Sunni powers. Thus, Syria is simply their best chance to cripple the core of Iran’s regional networks of allies.

Increasingly reducing the Syrian crisis to a simply a ‘Shia-Sunni divide’, these powers have been among the most vociferous proponents of a military intervention in Syria, ranging from the imposition of a  ‘no fly zone’ to neutralize Assad’s air supremacy, to the creation of ‘humanitarian buffer zones’ on Turkish-Syrian border areas, and implementation of a ‘no drive zone’ to neutralize Assad’s military maneuvering. Some, such as the Qataris, have, in the past, even suggested a ‘boots on the ground’ approach, with Arab soldiers – together with NATO operational support – implementing peace enforcement and/or aimed at regime change. So far, it seems that the consensus within this camp is to at least focus on arming the rebels and increase the pressure of sanctions and diplomatic isolation to cripple the regime.

The second camp is composed of Eastern powers such as Russia, China, and Iran. They have been the most vociferous opponents of any form of military intervention in Syria, while emphasizing the need for a ‘managed political transition’ without an explicit call for Assad to step down. Russia and Iran have been more actively supporting the regime by providing it diplomatic, political and financial space. While the Russians have continued to supply the regime with armaments (ostensibly based on prior contracts), the Iranians are said to have played an increasingly prominent role as a source of financial and logistical support. However, none of these powers have ruled out dialogue with the opposition, with each of them either hosting (or expressing an intent to meet with) elements of the opposition to mediate a prospective political compromise with the regime.

The last camp, or the ‘third way’, is composed of many developing countries, from India to Brazil, which are deeply disturbed by the level of ongoing violence in Syria. They may have already lost their belief in the legitimacy of President Assad, but they are also equally critical of any form of military intervention to resolve the crisis. Their main priority is to kick start a UN-sponsored political approach, which will combine humanitarian, political, and peacekeeping tools to put a lid on the ongoing violence in Syria and pave the way for a managed political transition. They seek both sides to immediately lay down their arms to end the festering bloodshed.

A Diplomatic End to Violence

Among the most prominent in the third camp is Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi, who has emphasized the need for a regional Syrian Contact Group, composed of all relevant regional powers, including Iran (the external actor that wields the largest leverage over Assad), to build an effective framework for a political resolution of the crisis, backed by a pro-active UN mediation, led by the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. Morsi’s proposal has been endorsed by both Russia and Iran.

During the recent NAM Summit in Tehran, which brought about 120 countries, 17 observer nations, and around 30 heads of state, the Iranians also proposed the formation of a special NAM committee under the leadership of a troika, composed of the organization’s past, current, and future chairs: Iran, Egypt, and Venezuela. This could serve as overlaying ‘non-aligned’ institutional bedrock for a coordinated regional-and-UN level approach, as proposed by Morsi. The key element here is the emphasis on political dialogue, compromise, and a unified pressure on both sides of the conflict to end the ongoing cycle of violence. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Washington and Saudi Arabia as well as Ankara will ever agree to such arrangement.

In a recent visit to Moscow, Syria’s Deputy Prime Minsiter Qadri Jamil has already hinted at negotiating Assad’s resignation. This is a potential turning point in favor of a political compromise. But, assuming there will be a movement on the Morsi proposal, combined with the NAM committee suggestion, what is unclear is whether any sort of “compromise” will ultimately involve a classic dilemma: should Assad, his circle, and his family members be given political asylum (maybe in Tehran?) and guarantees against persecution to facilitate the end of violence and kick-start a process of democratic transition? Given the need to put an immediate end to the cycle of violence, we may see growing discussions on sacrificing some measure of justice for the sake of instituting immediate peace, before it is too late.

Recommendations for the DFA

Though the primordial objective of our diplomacy in Syria is to protect our OFWs, there are other actions we need to carry out as a responsible member of the international community.  Thus, the following should be the basic principles guiding Philippine diplomacy towards Syria:

1. The Aquino administration must make it known to the Syrian people that it stands with them in their demand for a democratic polity;

2. It must oppose moves on the part of Western powers or their Arab allies to intervene militarily and take out the Assad regime;

3. It must help promote a peaceful, UN-mediated transition in alliance with influential developing countries (e.g., Egypt, Brazil, India, etc.)  

Ultimately, the Philippine government should balance the need to retain cooperative relations with the Syrian regime (to protect OFWs) against the imperative of standing on the right side of history once the situation on the ground drastically shifts. Thus, it should bear the following strategic considerations in mind:

  1. It may hedge its bets by exploring ways to open channels of communication with the SNC, but more especially the FSA – through the U.S., Britain and influential Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to ensure the safety of our OFWs (those who have not been repatriated or could have been illegally re-trafficked into Syria), since the Assad regime is losing control over a growing proportion of the country, with the FSA and other elements of the opposition extending their areas of de facto jurisdiction.
  2. While opening channels of communications with the opposition, the DFA should be very clear that it is not necessarily withdrawing its recognition of the sovereignty of the current Syrian regime. Otherwise, we would be antagonizing an embattled regime and possibly jeopardizing the lives of OFWs within the regime’s areas of control such as Damascus. At the same time, the DFA should avoid being too invested in the current regime (i.e., refusing to vote against the regime, or worse, consistently voting in favor of the regime in international conventions). It should make sure that it is on the right side of the history, especially with the growing vulnerability of the regime in recent months.
  3. As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Philippines – together with other ASEAN countries such as Indonesia – should lobby for a ‘unified’ international response to a peaceful resolution of the issue, the end result being the creation of the conditions for the emergence of a truly democratic representative government. With Iran taking over the leadership of NAM, the Philippines could use this opportunity to act as a bridge between Tehran, varying Arab states and Washington, and lobby for a more unified international role in resolving the Syrian crisis.
  4. Still, there is a high possibility that the Syrian crisis will continue to become a ‘proxy war’. This means that there is a possibility for a total collapse of the regime and the beginning of a potentially disastrous period of civil war. So, the DFA should have all contingency plans on the table to evacuate OFWs once the regime totally disintegrates and Syria falls into a state of collapse – and worse, if the conflict spills over into other neighboring Arab countries with considerable OFW concentration.