The United States promised it would take “firm and appropriate measures” to protect the cease-fire in southern Syria. However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, along with the Russians and Iranians, are advancing toward the southern part of the country. Assad’s army has been pounding the southern region with airstrikes. Regime forces are on track to repeat the same human catastrophes that happened in Aleppo last year and Eastern Ghouta this March. Southern Syria is the liberated zone; the besieged city of Daraa is the cradle of Syrian revolution, and it hasn’t fallen yet. But 1 million Syrians, living for now in relative security outside the control of the regime known for its vengeance, are feeling nervous. Some are fleeing toward Jordan, which is refusing to admit more refuges.
It’s time for the United States to step up and reassert its traditional authority in the region. This is not a job for the Russians or the Israelis, both of whom would bring a deal with considerable strings attached. And as long as Iran holds strategic cards in Syria, the prospect for success is nil. The United States would be the only honest broker in the international effort to restore peace and justice for all Syrians.
To bring about a permanent peace in Syria, the southern part of the country must be protected. Victory for Assad there is not a complete solution so much as it is a pause. The territories governed by Assad are ruled by fear and a loss of hope for prosperity.
The United States should propose partition in Syria. Assad can keep what he controls, and the rebels can form local governments and establish a new entity. With international recognition and support, it would be possible to hold elections for local councils, curtail radicalized individuals, and bring a stop to the fighting that has destabilized the region and created a refugee crisis that has spread through Europe.
Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State will always be threats, but they will likely be rejected by the local Syrian community if there are international and regional forces supporting Syrian aspirations for moderate civilian rule.
The template for Syria is what the Turks are doing now in in Afrin, where they train local police and organize local councils. In the eastern Euphrates region, where there a dominance of Syria’s Kurdish forces, the Americans and Turks have developed an understanding allowing forces to coexist in the city of Manbij. This could be the basis for broader cooperation between many parties in the northern Syrian and eastern Euphrates regions. The Turks are ready to train more local Syrian police and even start reconstruction if their concerns about an independent Kurdish presence are taken into consideration.
It is imperative to protect the various regions of the country; the best guarantee of that is a measure of self-governance. The locals and returned refugees can use the Syrian legal code abolished by the Assad family when it took power as the place to start a new civic infrastructure. Those laws, after all, were drafted by an elected parliament.
If those areas are left to live in peace for a few years, they will flourish. Refugees who have not built lives elsewhere will return and others will emigrate out from under the thumb of Assad. There are about 6 million Syrians scattered among Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey who might just like to go home.
These free zones, run by elected councils, would be a model for a future Syria, especially if the zones achieved relative economic success. The day will come when the world will be more willing to end Syria’s partition. One could imagine a day when empowered and experienced representatives of liberated areas will sit with the regime’s representatives and work to negotiate to reunify a more democratic Syria.