Planning for the day after the anticipated fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has become a race against time that many proponents of a pluralistic, democratic Syria fear they are losing.
In Washington, Istanbul and elsewhere, opposition activists and their supporters are establishing databases and drafting the outlines of an interim structure to govern Syria until something more permanent can take its place.
But even those who have been working on the plans doubt they will serve as more than suggestions in a post-Assad atmosphere that they predict will be characterized at best by conflict and chaos. At worst, they see a sectarian bloodbath and a possible takeover by extremists fighting on the side of rebel military forces.
Many Syrian activists believe the United States and Europe have exacerbated the challenges by forbidding interactions with the armed opposition in the country while Assad is still in power.
“What we really need is to work with the most prominent and moderate leaders in the Free Syrian Army to make them national leaders, to create a strong organization for them under political leadership,” said Rami Nakhla, executive director of the Istanbul-based Day After organization, which is providing technical support to the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition.
Restrictions against any interaction with the armed opposition, he said, are “a big strategic mistake.”
Others say that U.S. humanitarian assistance to Syria, provided indirectly and largely invisibly through non-governmental organizations, has had only a negligible effect in the conflict and that massive reconstruction aid planned for the day after Assad’s fall will come too late to win Syrian hearts and minds.
“No one is thinking about the day after. They’re thinking about today, and whether they’ll be alive tomorrow,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch.
“Even secular-minded people who acknowledge the jihadis are a potential threat to them say they’re the only people who helped us and you didn’t help us,” said Malinowski, who returned last week from rebel-held areas of Syria. “There is not much time left to demonstrate to Syrians that the United States was with them when they needed it most.”
U.S. officials say they recognize the urgency of the situation, as rebel military forces increase their hold on Syrian territory amid escalating civilian deaths and mounting humanitarian needs. “But there are legal issues involved” in moving beyond humanitarian aid, a senior administration official said.
Providing the rebel military with the same kind of organizational and training aid being given outside Syria to the political opposition is just as illegal as handing over weapons or sending troops, U.S. officials said.
Without an international mandate from the United Nations or approval from Congress, the United States has no basis on which to aid or interact with the Syrian rebels, under the legal opinion on which the administration has based its policy.
Although the administration has said it thinks Assad must go, its range of action is limited by the fact that this country is not at war with Syria and has no legitimate claim of self-defense, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal deliberations.
Even without a legal foundation, the administration has made clear it believes that adding to the fight on the ground in Syria would only make matters worse. The only “red line” that might provoke intervention, President Obama has said, is the unleashing of Syria’s chemical weapons.
To those on the outside advocating stronger action, the administration is simply looking for excuses. “It seems to me that on these things where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Malinowski said. “The stakes are really high for the United States right now.’’
One of the main U.S. efforts to guide Syria toward a democratic future has been a project launched by the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace. For six months early this year, USIP brought together a group of several dozen Syrians, who in August released a “day after” report spelling out challenges and recommendations for workable justice and electoral systems, a restructured economy and social policy.
All meetings were held outside the United States and conducted in Arabic. And, according to Steven Heydemann, who headed the project, the focus was on models established in South Africa and Tunisia, whose new constitutions “proceeded in a way that was much more transparent and inclusive” than those in Egypt and Iraq.
“Every village, every town, is going to have to deal with people who supported the regime, who committed crimes,” he said. “We can’t tell people in all of those locations what to do. What we can do is present them with a set of principles . . . here is what the U.N. says, here is what the South Africans and others have done.”
Based on U.N. guidelines, vetting systems have been proposed to sift through thousands of public officials and determine who should be retained to keep the government functioning. Within what U.S. officials said are nearly 300 separate Syrian opposition splinter groups, “a lot of people are keeping databases on what they know about individuals,” Heydemann said. But “it’s in a thousand different places and forms.”
USIP and others involved in the day-after effort anticipate that the Syrian Opposition Coalition, with its own committees planning legal, security, public service and other structures, will find the information useful. But everyone understands that a peaceful transition is unlikely.
“If we speculate that the regime collapses soon, we have to recognize that we would see a period of fairly intense political competition in which actors on the ground who had established credibility would have a significant advantage” over anyone or anything coming from the outside, Heydemann said. “Military commanders in many cases would assert their authority, at least temporarily.”
“Ultimately, I think, this work has to be understood as an effort to avoid worst-case scenarios, not as an effort to develop ideal structures that will permit Syria to transition immediately and seamlessly into a popular parliamentary democracy. I don’t think anyone envisions that.”
What worries Rami Nakhla and others is that the hands-off approach adopted by the United States and its European allies may be ensuring the chaotic outcome they say they seek to avoid. Nakhla’s own apocalyptic prediction is that powerful armed elements, including extremists, will look for a new enemy to retain their power after vanquishing Assad and will settle on neighboring Israel.
The West will inevitably oppose them, and “the Syrian people will start to view the international community as their enemy,” Nakhla said in a telephone interview from Turkey. A Damascus university student who slipped out of Syria just as the uprising began in early 2011, he spent months hiding from Syrian intelligence in Beirut while disseminating video and updates from protesters inside Syria to the outside world on the Internet.
Recruited to work on USIP’s project, he is now in Istanbul to set up the independent Day After organization to provide technical assistance to the coalition.
The group receives money from the United States and several European governments whose intelligence services maintain close watch over the Free Syrian Army and assorted rebel groups, but whose governments have refused to engage in substantive outreach to them, Nakhla said.
“My understanding is, it’s a legal issue,” he said. “The FSA, at the moment, has no official recognition or status. . . . Some of them, they are sectarian; some have been labeled as terrorist. No Western country will risk it to work with them.” He insisted, based on what he said were his own contacts with FSA commanders, that the rebel military would gladly accept assistance other than arms, which they are already receiving from Persian Gulf states and raided Assad arsenals.
Frederic C. Hof, who served as the State Department’s special adviser on transition in Syria until September and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, is somewhat less pessimistic, but equally certain that the Syrian endgame is now approaching.
The Obama administration, Hof said in an interview, should prepare for a bumpy ride in post-Assad Syria. “The United States and its allies are not always going to like some of the decisions and some of the people involved. We don’t control the timing on everything here. This is a Syrian revolution.”
“In an ideal world, it would be a seamless transition — the regime gone, the opposition slides in, with existing structures, and makes it work,” he said.
“But this is going to be messy, to say the least, one way or the other.”