Through Reconciliation Justice is Possible in a New Syria

Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

July 27, 2012

East Meredith, NY

The transition in Syria’s leadership might be close. High-level defections have started. Recent suicide explosions have shaken the rulers. Border control is eroding. The opposition has achieved a degree of symmetry of power in fighting government forces. Damascus and Aleppo, the two most important cities, are no longer immune to horrific battles. The scale of refugees has grown significantly.

Even as battles rage in Aleppo today, it is imperative to discuss reconciliation.

While it is true that the future is unknown, Western media has gone wild in posing scenarios of Syria’s imminent fragmentation into several ethnic and sectarian states. Some observers anticipate a regional war in which Iran and Israel fight on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict.

But Syria is not Iraq or Lebanon. Syrian society is for the most part secular; clerical leadership is weak; the mosque and the church do not profoundly influence politics. In the past, Syrians resented external interference in their local affairs. Social distance among communities is minimal; you could not tell who is an Alawite, a Sunnite, a Christian, a Druze or a Kurd by looks or demeanor. The economy, the history and the communal memory should hold the Syrians together during this crisis. Syria is among the oldest of nations.

On the brink of civil war, a Syrian Mandela is needed today. Regrettably, prophetic voices are not heard in an environment of political vacuum and crumbling security structures. Leaders in the opposition who discourage militarization of the uprising, dependence on foreign intervention and exploitation of sectarian sentiments need to be included in the national planning for future Syria. For example, Haytham Man’na, the chief of the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change in Syria, needs to be heard in Washington and Riyadh. In a July 22 article titled The Last Ramadan for the Dictatorship in the Jerusalem Arabic daily Alquds, Man’na asserts that only a rapprochement between civic minded opposition groups, the military and credible statesmen from all sides, could save Syria from a devastating civil war. If Syria is to experience renewal, revenge is to be cast away. A democratic Syria will rise only within a context of honest national exchange.

The central question is no longer how the Syrian regime will fall, but what to do the day after. The key to smooth transition of power is assuring safety to the losing side; settling scores will not be part of the war aftermath in the new Syria.

Among supporters of the Alawite Assad regime are many in the Christian and Druze communities. But these two communities are not inseparably tied to Assad; and they could be persuaded with security guarantees to join the urgent national struggle for reform. At this point, even the Alawites must be aware of the regime’s inevitable expiration. At some point, the Alawite leadership in the army and security forces might be willing to join a transition plan if it receives assurance that there will not be sectarian recrimination.

Here Washington could covertly reassure the military of their safety, and the safety of their communities, in order to pressure President Assad to accept defeat gracefully. But norm breakers need confidence in the consequences of change. Will Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who provide the bulk of the military and financial support to the opposition, be ready to control retribution when their protégées achieve power in Damascus? These two countries are not known for their propensity to forgive losers or to support democracies. Washington should remind its Gulf allies that the Arab Spring will be at their door one day. Facing future uprisings, the rulers of the Gulf will very likely need the same reassurance to accept changing times.

Reconciliation requires a structure and a process. Syrians may wish to apply some features of the South African model of conflict resolution. A committee of Reform and Reconciliation could be formed, representing all Syrians, including credible elements of the military and all minorities. This inclusive national committee could ease the exit of President Assad.

Assad’s safe exit would give all sides of the conflict in Syria the assurance that reconciliation is a significant pillar in nation building. In the new Syria, justice will be achieved by changing the rules of representation and governance, not by retribution.

As Aleppo burns, the challenge to integrate justice with reconciliation is stark.


Ghassan Rubeiz

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida