After seven years of horrific fighting, it appears that the Syrian civil war is inching toward a conclusion. In the wake of recent alleged chemical attacks unleashed in Eastern Ghouta, Bashar al-Assad’s regime is squeezing remaining rebel forces, largely herding them — and thousands of civilians — into the northwest in Idlib Province, where an uncertain fate awaits.
Although the government remains unable to reassert control over the entire country, in which myriad foreign and local forces have carved out their own zones of control, a formal or de facto truce among the remaining armed groups grows more likely.
But what then? Post-conflict Syria increasingly occupies regional and international policymakers, who recognize the cooling of the conflict will present both a threat and an opportunity. A political agreement between the warring parties must be the first priority, and a sine qua non for peace in the country. Yet to enforce a deal and prevent the country from backsliding into recriminatory violence, international interposition will be required.
Peacekeeping, under the auspices of the United Nations, represents an attractive option that is relatively cost-effective and has a proven record of success. Although the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations is not readying plans any time soon to organize an international force, a change in conditions on the ground may prompt a reassessment in the near future. A possible moniker for the force could be Unshams, or the United Nations Stabilization and Humanitarian Assistance Mission in Syria (in Arabic, shams means sun, while greater Syria was historically known as Bilad al-Sham).
Any peacekeeping operation would first have to overcome the formidable obstacle of a Russian veto in the Security Council. Syria represents a key Russian interest in the region, and President Putin is unlikely to accept the creation of a mission that fundamentally undermines its influence in Damascus. But Russia may accede to the creation of a force if a peace settlement does not fatally endanger the Syrian regime and its own position in Syria: a bitter pill for many in the West to swallow, though a likely prospect.
Signs already exist that Moscow has little stomach for a long-term military commitment in Syria and is looking for peace. Perhaps a greater threat to any peacekeeping mission will be Iran’s presence in Syria, where Tehran hopes to entrench its influence and expand its front against Israel. Supporters of a UN mission face a difficult task in containing Iran’s ambitions in Syria, although the prospect of prising Russia away from its de facto Iranian ally could offer an avenue to the international community for doing so.
Even if the Security Council can authorize a mission, the presence of peacekeepers alone will not guarantee peace in Syria. Rather, any force must be tailored to the specificities of the Syrian political and military landscape, taking into account the needs and aspirations of the country’s diverse ethnic, religious and economic groups. It must also learn the lessons of the small UN observer force deployed to Syria in 2012 that proved unable to maintain peace — clearly a more robust deployment will be needed.
In creating a force, the UN must consider three major questions: where in Syria will it operate? Who will it comprise? And what will it do?
The geographic distribution of peacekeeping forces will depend on the situation in Syria at the end of the conflict and the division of territory under any political settlement. The country is currently fractured into numerous territorial pockets controlled by different factions. Peacekeeping forces will most likely be interposed along the lines dividing these sectors and operating within them.
Potential fault lines that will require monitoring include Idlib Province, where the bulk of the Sunni anti-Assad resistance is now concentrated; southern pockets near the Israeli border, where some rebel groups persist and where Iranian and Hezbollah activities are making Israel increasingly nervous; rural rebel islets in the western spine of the country; the eastern Euphrates Valley, where the remnants of ISIS linger; and the border zones between regime-held and Kurdish-dominated territory in the north and east.
Equally important is who serves in the deployments. Including troops from those powers who have openly taken sides in the conflict or who have significant interests in Syria — Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states — would undercut the impartiality a mission needs to succeed. The UN must therefore look to midsize and nonregional powers as troop contributors. Selecting peacekeepers whom diverse combatant groups broadly view as acceptable in their country is also critical. Military forces are less likely to be tolerated when the civilian population perceives them as strangers; or, in social science jargon, an “out-group.”
Conversely, “in-group” forces have wider latitude for action in the eyes of a population. This suggests that a peacekeeping force in Syria may best retain the support of the population if it is comprised of people with whom Syrians feel a degree of affinity. One important factor will be to include Muslim troops in any mission to the predominantly Muslim country. Of course, shared religion does not necessarily ensure a close affinity. But in a region where a history of foreign intervention by non-Muslims has increased inhabitants’ wariness of Western countries’ intentions, the presence of Muslim soldiers would prove an invaluable confidence-building gesture.
Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Senegal, Indonesia and Egypt are some of the biggest troop contributors to UN missions, and diplomats and the UN Secretariat should strive to encourage these countries to contribute to a future Syrian force.
The most critical factor in the success of peacekeeping in Syria will be the scope of its mission. Gone are the days when peacekeepers merely monitored truces and patrolled cease-fire lines: missions are increasingly multidimensional, incorporating military, police and civilian components engaging in activities from human-rights promotion, to humanitarian relief, to justice sector reform. The shift toward such a broad range of activities recognizes that peace is best maintained by addressing conflict’s root causes.
Although the drivers of Syria’s war are complex and contested, there are two concrete areas that a UN mission should prioritize, no matter how gargantuan the task: disarming and demobilizing armed actors and addressing the sectarian character of the state security forces, which the predominantly Sunni opposition views as a partisan tool of Assad’s Alawite sect. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs will be needed to take weapons from the hands of combatants and ease them back into civilian life.
The UN is currently pioneering psychosocial support projects and deradicalization training for al-Shabaab members in Somalia that could provide a model for members of hard-line groups in Syria. The reform of the security sector along nonsectarian lines — possibly incorporating some moderate opposition militias into these forces — will be vital in defusing deep-lying mistrust between citizens and the government.
A thornier issue, which lies beyond peacekeeping’s capacity, will be the future of Assad himself. A peacekeeping force will also have to participate in the distribution of vital reconstruction aid, which could come from the West and elsewhere. Such far-reaching projects will be expensive, but they can address the sources of conflict, which will continue to render peace elusive unless dealt with.
Peacekeeping is not the panacea for Syria’s woes, but is the country’s best shot for enforcing a peace agreement and ensuring lasting stability. The Security Council has been criticized for inaction in Syria — without recognizing that Russia has been the main block in the Council’s ambitions to act decisively. But the creation of a peacekeeping force can prove otherwise, and, more important, help the millions of Syrians whose lives have been thrown apart by seven years of war by a government against its own people.
Governments must give the UN their full support to do so.
This is an opinion essay.
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Andrew McIndoe is a candidate for an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, where he is also a regional editor on Palestine/Israel for the Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy. McIndoe has received numerous awards, including the Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship at Harvard. He has a joint B.A. in history and a bachelor of laws from the University of Auckland and was an intern in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.