Preventing mass atrocity after Assad

March 15, 2013

As the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising approaches, close to 80,000 people have been killed, a million are refugees and several million are displaced. The Syrian army and air force are under severe stress and attacking civilian populations, the revolutionaries are increasingly radicalized in a Sunni Islamist direction and Lebanese Hezbollah as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guards are getting deeply engaged in the fight.

It may seem superfluous to worry about what happens to the Alawite community — the mainstay of Bashar Al Assad’s regime – after he falls. But revenge killing is common after an uprising of this sort, and few regimes born in mass atrocity survive as democracies. A massacre of Alawites could be prelude to state collapse, an extremist regime and regional warfare far worse than the spillover we have seen thus far.

How can mass atrocity in the aftermath of the Assad regime be avoided? Above all, it is Syrians who will need to make sure it does not happen. The Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has already made clear that it intends to construct a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic and democratic regime post-Assad. What needs to be accomplished to achieve that goal?

A lot. Here are just a few of the options that need to be considered:

  1.  A negotiated end to the regime. Atrocities will be far less likely if there is a clear, well-constructed and well-communicated end to the Assad regime, with a roadmap to a future democratic constitution that will respect minority rights. A chaotic collapse of the regime will make mayhem much more likely, including a possible “stay-behind” insurgency like the one in Iraq after the American invasion.
  2. International supervision. The roadmap could be implemented with oversight from a “contact group” that includes the main international powers with influence, including neighbors and regional powers. The big issue here is whether Iran is in or out, which depends on Tehran’s attitude toward any negotiated settlement.
  3. An international intervention force. There will be many armed groups in Syria, however the conflict ends. A strong, legitimate international intervention force of both police and military could separate warring parties, establish a safe and secure environment and protect minorities. The big question is: Who would provide these troops and police? Iraq’s neighbors have all been parties to the conflict. The Arab League is inexperienced at stabilization and peacekeeping. The United States and Europe are trying to stay out.
  4. New security forces. Assad’s army, police, intelligence and other security forces will be thoroughly discredited once the regime is gone. It will be necessary to reconfigure, retrain and reform the security forces so they can reestablish a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence accepted by both former regime elements and rebels. It was the failure to do this effectively that has made a mess of post-Qaddafi Libya. Training of a small Syrian “stabilization” force could begin even now outside Syria, for deployment into liberated areas.
  5. Accountability and justice. It is never possible to punish all those who have supported a dictatorial regime, but victims will be looking for satisfaction. This can initially be offered in a well-articulated plan of action for holding a clearly defined and limited number of senior regime figures accountable for abuses, as well as a broader reconciliation effort to give victims an opportunity to voice grievances and seek eventual redress.
  6. Outreach by the new leaders to communities that have not supported the revolution. Few countries are blessed with a Nelson Mandela, but even lesser figures could try to reassure those who have supported the regime and provide credible guarantees of security. They might even invite in foreign forces to establish a “safe and secure environment” for particular communities at risk.
  7. Basic human needs. Many Syrians are lacking food, water, sanitation and shelter. The country will need a rapid infusion of vital humanitarian assistance that is distributed fairly and transparently by a duly constituted authority.
  8. Quick stabilization of the economy. The Syrian economy will be in free fall. The country will be unable to pay its debts and will need relief from international obligations. It may also need a new currency and a credible central bank. It will certainly need jobs, especially for the many youth already unemployed before the war. They will otherwise find employment with militias unlikely to be sensitive to human rights.
  9. Local community development. Major development projects will have to wait. They will require a well-functioning government and a credible sovereign guarantee to reopen lending by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. A well-targeted reconstruction effort that local communities help plan and monitor, like the successful National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan, would be a good start, provide livelihoods and contribute to mitigating the likelihood of violence.
  10. Dispute settlement. As people return to their homes, disputes will break out over property, much of which will be badly damaged and destroyed. It is important to establish a relatively quick administrative procedure for settlement of disputes and recovery of private property, in particular real estate.
  11. Funding for civil society. Syria under Assad lacked the vigorous nongovernmental organizations that provide advocacy, serve as watchdogs and help protect human rights and minorities in open societies. Funding and empowerment of grassroots organizations committed to a democratic outcome and organized across sectarian and ethnic lines, including the revolutionary local administrative councils that have spontaneously appeared in liberated areas, can strengthen social cohesion and prevent violence.
  12. Safe havens for particular minorities. Odious though it may be on other grounds, temporary separation of ethnic and sectarian groups in the immediate aftermath of violent conflict can help to prevent violence and reduce risks to vulnerable minorities. Many Syrian neighborhoods are more or less segregated. It may be best to keep them that way for a time, but to move once trust is re-established in the direction of much more sectarian and ethnic integration.

Syrians will have to decide for themselves what they want to take advantage of, or not, from this laundry list. They may well also discover some new tricks. But the country will be far better off in the long term if Syrians and internationals start thinking now about what to do to prevent the worst from happening after Assad falls.

PHOTO: A demonstrator shouts a slogan during a protest held to mark two years since the start of the uprising in the country, in Raqqa province, eastern Syria March 15, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

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Excellent article that points to some very difficult problems. However, judging by the prevalent ‘defiance’ and ‘resistance’ attitude in that region, as well as from the civil war in Lebanon and ‘insurgency’ in Iraq, things don’t look pretty.
Clearly, it would be quasi impossible to reconstruct a stable, functional and democratic Syrian state with Lebanon’s Hezbollah existing in its present virulent form, and heavily supported by the Islamist regime in Iran.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

Reuters, you are personally responsible for much of the chaos in Syria – you together with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. 80,000 now? You are dreaming. The UN acknowledges the 60,000 number was just a guess and you’ve up’d it by 20,000 in 2 months? Thanks to you and your other media buddies, together with those “champions of freedom and democracy” you support which would be Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the already planned open elections for 2014 in Syria will never be able to happen. Good job!

Posted by jkf | Report as abusive

This is all assuming that Assad falls…
If he falls……

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

But the reality of what would happen if Assad falls is the establishment of fundamentalist Sunni government.
I will laugh at all of the supporters of the rebels in the West if this should happen. If you think Assad was a nightmare to Isreal, wait till you see what would succeed him if he falls, hahahahahahaha!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive


Bashar Assad was never a ‘nightmare’ for Israel, and as a matter of fact, neither he nor his father before him had been more than a nuisance for Israel in the past three decades – Israel practically annihilated the Syrian air force in 1982, and the collapse of the USSR, Assad’s main supporter, has restricted Assad’s ability to threaten Israel to nearly zero.
Although Assad backed terror organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, both of them fall within the category of terrorist nuisance and not of a severe military threat as far as Israel is concerned.
Besides, by the end of the armed conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, Hezbollah was begging for a ceasefire, and Nasrallah, its leader declared that had he known the results of that conflict, he would not have started it in the first place.
Indeed, Hezbollah didn’t dare attack Israel during the recent armed conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Assad has been a big problem for Lebanon, as the Assad dynasty has always mingled in that country’s internal affairs, and most of all, Assad was a huge problem for Syria itself, since his regime’s extreme policies and alliance with the terrorist regime in Iran have crippled Syria’s economic development, and turned it into a political and cultural desert, all of which brewed the current civil war.

There is no question of ‘if Assad falls’, since he already is no longer the president of the Syrian state, because of reality on the ground, as the armed forces that are still loyal to him do not have control over the entire Syrian territory, and also because of the fact that no foreign government except Iran, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela recognize him as a legitimate head of state.

Assad used to be the president of Syria when Syria was still a functioning state, which it no longer is.
But Assad is still the leader of the Alawi militia, which means he’s still relevant in the context of this article.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

Funny but my comment about Reuters being partially responsible for the current atrocities in Syria didn’t make it on the comments page. Problem is, the problem never was Assad being a brutal dictator. Problem is that Assad squelched the Islamic extremists in Syria to try and promote secularism and stability. His government has been on the receiving end of sophisticated media blitz of misleading “news” stories; most of which originated from al Jazeera and al Arabiya, the media mouths of Saudi Arabia and Qatar who just happen to want…Islamic fundamentalism in Syria! And Reuters got on their bandwagon and never got off.

Posted by jkf | Report as abusive

To Kyle, Assad remains the president of Syria and hopefully will remain so. He has more courage, determination, strength of conviction, and good will than almost all western leaders combined. He has made great strides in Syria in spite of the world’s most complex geo-political situation on one border and a major war on the other with a 5 year drought to top it all off. If he has been brutal in his put down of the conspiracies of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist factions of the Mideast, God bless him. He has been on the receiving end of a shameful, misleading media and politial campaign.

Posted by jkf | Report as abusive

If the USA is going to be involved in the Middle East, it is going to be involved in mass killings for religious and ethnic reasons. That is what passes for politics there, and most places for that matter. Pick a side, as we have, and you are a participant, one who chose to participate. Now put that guilt on people who had no choice in the matter and you have America’s future.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive


I am sure you are looking forward to having a Sunni fundamentalist regime take power in Syria, and the more murderous and bloodthirsty it is the more pleased you will be. Just Imagine how wonderful it is to be proven right and to have all that blood shed just to satisfy your sick mind. Hahaha… indeed!

Posted by Biscayne | Report as abusive

Crony intellectuals here, author & posters, expressing & commenting on matters they have not the slightest idea about.

You should all go and live for a number of months/years in one of these countries and maybe then you could say something of substance.

Only those who have lost their children, family members and friends can speak for what is needed there. War is hell, period, and it is always instigated by profiteers, the scum of civilization.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

The professor should have put the 12 points to the trigger-happy leaders of western “democracies” before they agreed to take part in this tragic destruction of a prosperous state.
Like Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria is back to stone age. The Russians are the only responsible statesmen. The others are pathetic amateurs, and will one day be called to answer for the atrocities and destruction.

Posted by aussie66 | Report as abusive

@aussie66 ” destruction of a prosperous state.”

What Syria? A welfare client state of Iran, that wasted billions on its military when it needed only border guards. That interfered in Lebanon when it’s own people needed infrastructure.
that Syria is what you refer to?

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive


I do not support the aparthied regime of Isreal. And for your information, the ALMIGHTY Isreal only has power because we give them power. As soon as we stop being a superpower, which will be in a about a decade, and we cut the flow of arms and funds to Isreal, beause we will no longer be able to afford it, then we will see how ALMIGHTY Isreal really is…..


You are like every typical American. You cant read between the lines. The reality is that Assad is the BEST option for Syria right now. Should he fall, there will be a sunni fundametalist governemnt that will come to power.


Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive


You couldn’t support an apartheid regime in Israel even if you wanted, since there’s no such thing, and never was.
Israel is a peaceful country, and it’s the only ally and true friend the US has ever had in the Middle East.
And since you can read neither the lines nor what’s between them: Neither the US nor Israel are going away, although your delusional friends in Tehran would like both to disappear.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive


Believe me, neither Iran, nor Hezbollah, nor any of these groups are going away either. In fact they have only been getting stronger over time, because of people as delusional as yourself.

Tell me, how is Iraq going??

But for people like you, only Jews can have a democracy, or what your version of it is. The fact is Isreal is a deadly racist country that kills the Palestinians. The Palestians were always there, but where did all of these Jews come from?????
In short, its an aparthied state, worse than South Africa!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive