To help oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an opposition group has drafted a plan for a transitional justice system that would impose harsh penalties against die-hard members of his inner circle but provide amnesty for most of his Alawite supporters.

The goal is to provide a legal framework that reassures Alawites this isn’t a fight to the death and that they will have a place in a post-Assad Syria. The plan would also encourage the rule of law in areas that have been liberated from Assad’s control, stemming the growing trend toward warlordism and revenge killings.

To me, this legal transition plan is the best idea advanced so far by the Syrian rebels because it addresses not just the brutality of the Assad regime but the real danger that Syria will descend into a chaotic failed state as the war continues and hatreds deepen. The U.S. and British governments support the ideas of accountability and reconciliation in general but haven’t endorsed any specific formula for Syria.

The plan was prepared by the Syrian Support Group, which backs moderate elements within the Free Syrian Army, with help from international lawyers. The proposal has been communicated to leaders of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the umbrella organization for anti-Assad rebels. Advocates hope that the international community will also endorse the plan at the next Friends of Syria meeting in Italy.

The idea is similar to the “truth and reconciliation” process that helped resolve bitter conflicts in South Africa, Rwanda and Northern Ireland. “It sends a strong positive signal to the people of Syria that victory for the rebels is inevitable” and that the new government “will deliver justice, compensate victims and be compassionate towards all,” explains a legal memo prepared by McCue & Partners, a London firm that is advising the Syrian Support Group.

The transition process would begin with the identification of 100 regime insiders whose defection could accelerate Assad’s fall. Some of these Assad supporters might be offered partial amnesty if they agreed to cooperate. The sooner they defected, the more leverage they might have under a future government. As part of the political transition, a compensation fund would be created to aid victims of the war.

Alawites who aren’t in the inner circle would be offered “safe passage,” explains a Syrian Support Group memo outlining the plan. “Our intelligence reports show that many Alawites are standing with Assad for their own survival, because of misunderstanding of [opposition] plans for [a] post-Assad transitional justice system. Many feel they will be executed wholesale. . . . This fact is helping Assad militarize the whole sect in a life and death fight [for] Damascus, with potential mass destruction of Damascus and gross loss of life.”

Unless Alawite fears about communal survival are addressed directly, “this issue will not be solved necessarily by Assad leaving power, and will create a major risk for Syria’s future stability in years to come,” the Syrian Support Group memo warns.

To implement the plan, the opposition would gather a team of Syrian legal experts. Among the possible names suggested are Suhair al-Atassi, a prominent human rights activist and vice president of the opposition coalition; Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge and longtime dissident; and leaders of Free Syria legal groups in Turkey and Jordan.

By using modern legal tools for asset tracing and recovery, Syrian lawyers would have both carrots and sticks for regime change. A targeted individual could save his dignity (and perhaps some of his fortune) by breaking with Assad and obtaining partial amnesty; he could lose it by clinging to the dictator. The tribunals for judging guilt of regime loyalists would resemble traditional Syrian legal systems.

As with everything affecting Syria, time is running out before the country collapses into an anarchic failed state. As rebels take control of areas, such as the northern suburbs of Aleppo, some brigade commanders are already taking the law into their own hands. “Some Free Syrian Army are acting more like the shabiha they used to fight,” says one Syrian source.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned last week that without a political settlement, Syria would be “transformed into hell.”

What Syria needs urgently is a path to a new government based on the rule of law. The plan prepared by the Syrian Support Group is the best road map I’ve seen, and the international community should embrace it quickly.