The Middle East Channel

The end game in Syria

Even as the Assad regime pursues Syria's descent into a sectarian wasteland, its cruelty cannot obscure a discernible shift in the violent stalemate between the regime and the revolution that has endured for the past year. In recent months, the erosion of the Assad regime has acquired new momentum. The regime may have retaken the ruins of Douma, yet its military is unraveling both from below and, increasingly, from above. The defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, once a close friend of President Bashar al-Assad, has exposed deepening rifts among the regime's inner circles. Tlass's defection will not be the last.

The armed opposition, on the other hand, is becoming better coordinated and more effective. The Turkish military is massing on the Syrian border. Turkey's government gives an increasingly free reign to opposition fighters who use its territory as a de facto safe haven. Sanctions have driven Syria's economy into a freefall. The business communities of Damascus and Aleppo have largely "flipped," though without the public disavowals of the Assads that the West would prefer.

These trends all point to one conclusion: the end of the Assad regime is drawing nearer. The relevant question is no longer whether the regime will fall, but when and, even more importantly, how. If the exact timing of its demise cannot be predicted, there are nonetheless growing indications that governments opposed to the Assad regime, and even those still supporting it, are increasingly concerned with how to manage the end game in Syria and protect their interests in a post-Assad era.

This new emphasis was evident in the June 30 Geneva meetings between the United States, Russia, and Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, in the Cairo meeting of the Syrian opposition on July 2 and 3 under the auspices of the Arab League, and in the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6. It has manifested through three significant shifts. One of the three is playing out in full public view, and underscores why both the United States and Russians continue to find value in Annan's work despite his failure to deliver meaningful results. The other two are less visible but not less important. They shed useful light on how the United States is working to manage the end game in Syria through an opposition that it continues to view as hopelessly fragmented, but now acknowledges, grudgingly, that it must work with nonetheless.

First, there has been a growing stress in U.S. and Russian diplomacy on efforts to ensure that a transition happens through negotiations rather than regime collapse. Negotiations have been a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Syria since the uprising began. They have acquired new significance, however, in part because they hold out hope of mitigating the chaos and violence that is expected to follow Assad's demise, but also because they offer virtually the only way in which the United States might be able to influence how a transition unfolds -- a process that is now seen as far more imminent than it was only a few months ago -- and, potentially, establish a counterweight to regional actors who have invested far more heavily than Washington in cultivating Syrian clients and have their own ideas about where a post-Assad transition should lead. Recent shifts in Russian policy in favor of negotiations reflect a similar logic. Without negotiations in which regime figures close to Russia play an active role, Moscow stands little hope of preserving its position in a post-Assad Syria.

In her comments at the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinforced this new emphasis on negotiations, praising the agreement reached in the meeting Annan brokered in Geneva on June 30. For the first time, she noted, Russia accepted that a political transition must occur, and for the first time, the agreement places the Syrian opposition on an equal footing with the Syrian government -- without, however, designating any particular group within the opposition as "the" legitimate counterpart of the regime in negotiations.

Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin added his voice to the negotiations chorus. On July 9 he stressed the need for Assad to enter negotiations, saying "We must do as much as possible to force the conflicting sides to reach a peaceful political solution to all contentious questions." To buttress his point, Russia also announced that it was suspending new arms contracts with Syria "until the situation calms down." Bashar seems to have gotten the message. On the same day that Putin spoke, Kofi Annan reported that he had secured Assad's agreement to a negotiating framework -- though did not release any further details. Even as it continues providing Assad with arms and supplies under existing contracts, the Kremlin no longer seems willing to bet the house on Assad's survival. After 16 months, and even as the regime continues its assault on Syrian civilians, the prospects for some form of negotiations are gaining serious momentum.

Second, the Arab League, the United States, and core Friends of Syria governments are working to equip the Syrian opposition to engage in negotiations, elevating the priority they attach to transition planning among the opposition. The core purpose of the Cairo conference, which it (miraculously) achieved, was to secure agreement on a bare bones transition strategy that all factions of the opposition could endorse. This focus carried over into the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris. Representatives of several opposition groups addressed transition planning, and Abdel Baset Sayda, president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), publicly endorsed "The Day After" plan, a document developed by Syrian opposition activists who worked together in Berlin over a period of six months to craft a detailed transition strategy (Full disclosure: USIP and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs facilitated the series of Berlin meetings that generated The Day After document).

Third, the Arab League, the United States, and other key actors have begun to downplay their demand for opposition unity, acknowledging, however reluctantly, that fragmentation can no longer be an obstacle to engagement. Instead, unity has been overtaken as a priority by an interest in securing opposition consensus on how to manage the challenges of regime transition. In Cairo, the Arab League unilaterally appointed a Preparatory Committee, essentially compelling opposition figures who would not normally sit in the same room to spend almost two weeks working together to develop the transition documents that were later approved by the full conference. The Friends meeting in Paris was also notable for the absence of discussions about opposition unity. In place of unity talk, member states showed more interest in strengthening the position of individuals seen as potential leaders in future negotiations, whatever faction of the opposition they might represent.

Competition to define a post-Assad transition will only accelerate as the fall of the regime grows nearer. Whether these efforts will pay off for the United States or for Russia, however, is uncertain. The scale of Russian support for the regime poses severe obstacles to Moscow's future influence in a post-Assad Damascus, while the limits of U.S. support for the opposition will likely constrain Washington's future influence, as well. Moreover, there are regional players in the game and they enjoy significant advantages. For the United States to maximize its leverage it would need to overcome its reluctance to support the armed opposition, yet this remains a large step further than Washington is willing to go. Not least, there are revolutionary forces on the ground, that have no intention of permitting Syria's future to be dictated by outsiders, who, together with the external opposition, have little confidence in Kofi Annan and are appropriately cynical about efforts to force them into negotiations with elements of the Assad regime. In this critical period, the Syrian opposition remains a diffuse and elusive target in Washington's efforts to manage the end game in Syria.

Steven Heydemann is a senior advisor at the US Institute of Peace's Middle East Initiatives. 

JACQUES BRINON/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Benghazi needs a hug

Shouts of "Allahu akbar" rang out Friday night in Benghazi, as Libya lost to Morocco on penalty kicks. Saturday brought a loud night of celebratory honking and gunfire as the polls for the first national election in 60 years closed.

I was in Benghazi observing the election for the Carter Center, which mounted a limited mission due to security concerns. It has issued its preliminary assessment. These are my own views, and not those of the Carter Center.

The Libyans are electing what they call a General National Congress (GNC), which will form the country's first elected government and -- according to a last-minute decision -- preside over regional elections for members of a constitution-drafting committee. Eighty seats in the GNC will be assigned proportionally from closed party lists, with men and women alternating on the ballot. One hundred twenty seats will go to individual candidates. This election will end Libya's self-appointed revolutionary regime, the National Transitional Council (NTC), which led the political side of the February 2011 revolt against Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The July 7 election wasn't perfect. Several people were killed in the eastern part of Libya, which saw tension and violence. But the elections came off smoothly in the west and much of the south, and better than feared in the east. This was good reason to celebrate. We will not know complete final results for several days, perhaps even a week, but the tallying is proceeding rapidly in an effort I visited at an army base on the way to Tripoli airport.  

Who would resist elections in a country so hungry for self-governance and freedom of expression? Extremist Islamist groups with limited resonance in the broader population opposed this spring's municipal elections in several communities, including Benghazi. In the weeks since, what Libyans call the "Federalist" opposition has grown both more vocal and more violent. They want to see Cyrenaica (or Barqa, as the Federalists prefer to call it) become autonomous, along with Fezzan in the south and Tripolitania in the west. They sought more seats in the GNC for Cyrenaica, as well as a constitution-drafting committee chosen regionally. Tribal and ethnic divisions are also at work. While proof is scarce, it is widely believed Qaddafi remnants in Cairo and elsewhere funded youthful protests and violence against the GNC elections, in an effort to undermine a democratic revolution.

Voting stations in Benghazi were generally well organized, well staffed, and orderly. Voters' names were usually posted outside polling stations, queuing was well-managed, the check-in process comparing voter cards with registration lists was meticulous, the ballots were stamped and distributed properly, provision was made for secret voting, fingers were inked, and the ballot boxes were clearly visible. There were observers present more often than not, many serving for individual candidates as well as political parties but most (more than 2,000 in Benghazi) from nongovernmental organizations, including the Libyan Women's Association, the Association for International Law, the Libyan Association for Election Observers and others. There was little sign of campaigning, intimidation or other attempts to influence voters inside (or immediately outside) polling centers. Staff was well acquainted with their responsibilities and properly identified with badges as well as white plastic smocks. Many polling stations posted their instructions on how they were to be set up and choreographed.

The second polling center I visited was in Gimeenis, on the periphery of Benghazi. Battles were fought nearby during the seesaw war with Qaddafi's forces. An attack on one of the polling centers there the previous day prompted the High National Election Commission to consolidate three polling centers into one. This had been accomplished by 10:30 a.m.. Voting was proceeding without a hitch. Sufficient materials had somehow been made available. A grenade attack on the new, consolidated polling center caused no hesitation. The polling center courtyard was crowded with men milling about, proudly defiant of the violence. Women were ululating upstairs.

Voters in Benghazi were well aware of the anti-election Federalist demonstrations and violence in the city and areas surrounding. They voted with determination and commitment in significant numbers. At the end of the day, the men's polling stations I visited were recording 75 to 85 percent of registered voters voting, before the police came in to vote after the centers closed. Revolutionary brigades who fought Qaddafi's forces, now at least in part organized under the "Supreme Security Council," participated in providing security in Benghazi, but they were part of the security problem in Ajdabiya, where some tribally-based militias opposed the voting.

We visited one polling center in a Tuarga displaced persons' camp and one in a facility for disabled people. The Tuarga, black people whom the revolutionaries of neighboring Misrata blame for alleged human rights violations, are unable to return to their homes hundreds of miles to the west, but they had the option of voting on ballots for their home constituency. Turnout was light. The facilities and staffing were on a par with elsewhere, even if the atmosphere was more somber. The facility for disabled people was uplifting: Qaddafi built it as a showcase, but more important than the relatively good physical facility was the spirit of those voting and managing the polling. Many (but not all) had physical limitations of one sort or another. Quiet but unmistakable pride was on display.

The political atmosphere in which the voting took place in Benghazi was one of anticipation and determination. While some Libyans did not vote because they were afraid, feel the NTC betrayed the revolution or support the Federalists, most relished the opportunity. Political leaders of all the major coalitions and parties -- my colleagues and I were able to talk with all the major ones in Benghazi -- were looking forward to the electoral contest, which included 3,700 candidates.

Early indications are that a coalition led by former NTC prime minister Mahmoud Jibril will do well in the closed-list contest, with over 50 percent of the party list seats in the General Public Conference. Justice and Construction, a creature of the Muslim Brotherhood even if it would prefer to deny the association, is hoping for at least 15 percent but no more than 35 percent, well aware of the unhappiness a bigger share would cause in some quarters. This would be significantly less than in Egypt and Tunisia. Many Libyans regard the Brotherhood as a foreign import that is trying to divide people who generally regard themselves as conservative Muslims. A "patriotic" party, the National Salvation Front, looks like a possible second or third. The experts may say Libya is an invented country -- its three pieces were cobbled together for independence in 1951 -- but if nothing else the Qaddafi regime has left everyone here literally waving the flag: not his green one, but the red, green, and black monarchical one the revolution prefers and demonstrators drape over your windshield as you pass through the chanting crowd in downtown Benghazi.

Benghazis may be patriotic, but they also feel they have gotten the short end of the stick for far too long. They are looking for respect and constitutional guarantees that it won't continue. The raw material for an insurgency -- charismatic leadership, youthful discontent, and funding -- is not lacking in Libya's east. Benghazi needs a hug. And maybe a few oil service companies, which in recent decades Qaddafi required to locate in Tripoli.

This was not only an inspiring but also a technically impressive election day, despite the scattered violence. Only a handful of communities were unable to vote. The results will be interesting, but the process was the main message. Libya wants democracy. 

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at www.peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/GettyImages