POMED Notes – Syria After Assad: Managing the Challenges of Transition
The U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) brought Syrian opposition members together on Thursday (10/4) to discuss the Day After Project, an eight-month effort to plan for a post-Assad Syria, coordinated by USIP and created by a group of 50 academics and opposition members. Although the report was released in August, this was the first presentation the report to the U.S. public. The project was divided into working groups, and each panelist focused their remarks on their respective sections. Amr al-Azm introduced the report and briefly discussed the Economic and Social Reconstruction working group, Afra Jalabi spoke on the Transitional Justice working group, Murhaf Jouejati focused on security sector reform, Rafif Jouejati represented the Economic and Social Reconstruction group, and Rami Nakhla of USIP discussed the Executive Committee. Steven Heydemann, Senior Adviser for Middle East Initiatives at USIP, introduced the panelists and served as moderator.
For full event notes, continue reading or click here for a PDF.
Steven Heydemann introduced the general structure of the report and stressed that it is not an aspirational document, but a practical guideline for the regions of Syria already under the control opposition control. Although the authors were not expecting rolling implementation of the plan, Heydemann said this kind of flexibility was emblematic of the report’s continued evolution.
Amr al-Azm noted the project sought to answer the question, “what comes next?” The Day After Project originally convened on January 2, 2012 and split into the six working groups to formulate specific recommendations. Al-Azm said the transition must begin now so the opposition can “hit the ground running when Assad falls.” Large sections of “liberated” Syria are already “living and practicing” the report, helping the authors improve the document and prepare a workable plan to roll out across the country when the time comes, al-Azm said.
Heydemann introduced the transitional justice section, noting ongoing violence in Syria has increased fear, tribal rivalries, and a desire for revenge, which terrifies Assad supporters. Tribal justice will help assuage fears without falling back on cycles of revenge, Heydemann said. Afra Jalabi called Syria a “deeply traumatized society” after four decades of suffering and collective punishment under Assad. Disappearances, torture and violence have intensified over the past 18 months, which explains a determination never to return to the old system. Syrians must commit to using rule of law to heal these wounds, and Jalabi said traditional paralegal methods, like tribal mediation, will help. A transitional truth committee should be created to deal with lingering resentments, Jalabi concluded.
Murhaf Jouejati addressed security, citing lessons from Libya and Iraq to help avoid a militia takeover, protect sovereignty, and establish an apolitical national police force. “There will be some measure of chaos the day after Assad falls,” Jouejati said, and the shabiha will seek to add to the violence and insecurity. However, many militias already endorsed civilian authority over the security sector, and while some elements of the militias combined with the army and police force, Jouejati stressed the need to totally revamp the intelligence services and Interior Ministry.
Rafif Jouejati said economic reconstruction will be dictated by immediate needs of hundreds of thousands of returning refugees and internally displaced and widespread devastation of the country’s infrastructure. The concurrent objectives will be to consolidate peace, stop the killing, ensure humanitarian care, build infrastructure for resettlement, empower local communities by creating jobs, return to macroeconomic stability, and dismantle the Ba’athist structure of bribery and nepotism.
Heydemann briefly discussed the strong support for the Day After report, including official endorsements from the European Parliament and the Syrian National Council. Rami Nakhla stressed the report is not telling the government what to do, but rather explaining how to do it. He expects continued imput from the Day After Association, USIP, and the Transition Support Network in Turkey. The document is already circulating inside Syria among the various regions, generations, and religious groups. One important key for the transition will be to protect “vulnerable communities,” Nakhla said.
Jalabi fielded the first question in the Q&A session, which dealt with ensuring justice in the aftermath of the Assad regime. Jalabi said there should be committees to deal with recent crimes and historical wrongs, based on a process of documentation and investigation. Local arbitration and mediation should determine specific questions of amnesty, but Jalabi noted thus far Syrians seem to welcome defections from the regime and are willing to wipe the slate clean.
Asked to hypothesize on a timeframe for the fall of the regime, the panelists were hesitant to be very specific but each called it “a matter of time.” Al-Azm said the regime’s resources are stretched thin, but as long as the regime holds Homs and Damascus, Assad can maintain power. He guessed a transition would take place by next summer. Jouejati noted peaceful demonstrations are gaining strength, even in Assad’s hometown, bolstered and defended by thousands of defected soldiers. Jouejati said he does not expect the regime to last even until next summer, based on increasing dissent within the pillars of the old regime, including the media, military and business leaders. Jalabi said the regime is trying to exploit sectarian divisions to prolong the conflict, but she sees solidarity among the Syrian people. Al-Azm and Jouejati agreed, noting the government’s protests are largely scripted, mandatory affairs.
All panelists agreed a cease-fire is not a credible option due to Assad’s history of broken promises and diplomatic subterfuge. Jalabi and Jouejati agreed both sides of the conflict must be held to the same human rights standards, including possible ICC hearings after the transition. “We must be better than the regime,” Jouejati said. Jalabi and Heydemann cited capital punishment as among the most contentious issues within the Day After community, especially when it comes to punishment for Bashar al-Assad. Jalabi said the group held heated discussions over the best way to protect minority rights in the future, with some members advocating for a confessional system of allocated parliamentary seats, although the committee ultimately agreed the confessional systems of Lebanon and Iraq were poor models for building national identity. Jalabi stressed that Syrian citizenship will be paramount after Assad, adding the international community must find a way to come together to support the transition, reserving special criticism for Iran, Russia and Hezbollah for their ongoing support of the regime. Jouejati and Jalabi concluded by reiterating that the regime is on its last legs, making the Day After Project all the more important.