The post-Assad Syria: 5 steps to reconstruction

Once Syrian president Bashar al-Assad falls, the country could regroup under a unity government to become a prosperous democratic state or it could experience years of civil war, sectarian atrocities and/or terrorists could take over to create an Islamic totalitarian state.

No one knows Syria???s future, but the ingredients are present for any of the above scenarios.  What appears certain is Assad is on his way out and it is time to focus on the day after.

The day after Assad falls will be ripe with violence especially if the dictator departs in a radical way by using chemical weapons in a last burst of genocide.  That could push the country into a rage of violence that might top that of the last year and potentially spill over to neighboring countries.

Even if Assad goes quietly, the chances of more violence and especially ethnic cleansing at the hands of the long-oppressed majority Sunnis against Assad???s Alawite and Christian supporters is a serious threat.  Also, terrorist groups al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, which support opposing sides in Syria???s civil war, could take advantage of the inevitable chaos to keep that country unstable.

For these reasons it behooves Syria???s neighbors and countries like the U.S. with Mideast interests to plan on how and who will lead efforts to stabilize and then rebuild Syria after Assad.  That challenge begins by selecting the right leadership.

President Barack Obama has taken a back-seat regarding Syria, eschewing any significant leadership role for America.  His administration works with the Arab League and Syria???s neighbors to monitor the situation and supply the rebels.  The lead nation regarding the Syrian crisis is Russia.

Moscow, a long-time Syrian ally, chose the banner of state sovereignty and non-intervention to address the crisis.  That is why three times Russia protected Damascus from United Nations sanctions using its Security Council veto; it keeps Damascus supplied with weapons, continues to invest in Syria???s economy, and maintains a naval presence in Syria???s port city of Tarsus as a warning against foreign invasion.

Last week, as violence in Damascus intensified, Russia once again killed any hope of an international effort to intervene to end the 18-month conflict with its third veto at the UN.  Moscow fears the West would use the proposed Chapter VII UN resolution to launch another Libya-style operation to remove Assad.  But now that the Syrian rebels are gaining momentum and Assad???s days appear numbered, Moscow is adjusting its non-interference policy to fit the new reality.

Moscow is negotiating with both Assad and the rebels to find an outcome that ends the fighting while protecting Russia???s foothold in Syria.  The rebels insist Assad must go before any deal is consummated and at a meeting earlier this month in Moscow, the rebels assuaged Russian concerns about a post-Assad Syria with a ???national covenant??? pact signed by rebel leaders guaranteeing  Russia its continued foothold in that country.

That pact may be enough to persuade Russia to lead the post-Assad peace and reconstruction campaign.  But whether Russia, a coalition of nations or an organization like the Arab League accepts the leadership responsibility, the process must begin and it must include the following five critical efforts.

First, there must be a plan to quickly stabilize Syria.  A significant armed peace enforcement contingent of several thousand troops ought to be led by neighbor Turkey with significant contributions from Arab nations.  Russia, if it decides to play a leadership role in post-Assad Syria, should also send a peace enforcement unit to work along side Turkey as it did in the Balkans following the 1999 Kosovo war.

That force???s first order of business will be to secure the North Dakota-size country.  That will require significant effort especially if Syria???s armed forces??? Alawites retreat with their weapons to villages and mountain strongholds to continue the fight.

Simultaneously Syria???s security forces must be vetted for loyalty by relying on the top brass who previously defected and overseen by the peace enforcement commander.  The rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army and vetted military units must then be combined in a cohesive fighting force, their major weapons systems tightly controlled and their personnel trained for immediate internal security operations.  Most important, do not disband Syria???s security forces as the U.S. did in Iraq; that was a tragic mistake.

Second, Syria???s robust chemical and biological weapon arsenals must be immediately secured and/or destroyed.  Jordan???s King Abdullah fears terror group al-Qaeda could take control of these weapons and Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak said Hezbollah could capture these weapons if Assad ships them to Lebanon for hiding.

This is a top priority mission for the post-Assad peace enforcement unit.  Hopefully Syrian military personnel will cooperate to locate and secure the vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.  But if not the weapons must be secured by force if necessary and/or destroyed before terrorist groups capture them to threaten the region.

Third, build an interim national unity government keeping functionaries from the Assad regime where possible and enlisting exiled leadership from the Syrian National Council and other non-regime Syrians.  Then host elections at the local and provincial levels within six months and eventually national elections within the first year.  There are a number of government and election models to follow such as the one used in Iraq, a template that worked for a similarly diverse culture.

Further, all groups must have a stake in Syria???s future to include those minorities that supported Assad such as the Alawites and Baathists.  Syria???s Kurds must participate and remember; they won new freedom during the civil war and will want to maintain that autonomy. Also, thousands of ex-patriots, especially those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who left Syria during clashes with the regime in the seventies and eighties, will return to play a role.

All groups must join the political process or the future Syria risks alienation and blowback that could make forming a unity government difficult and/or lead to the possibility of political partition, a destabilizing outcome.

Fourth, Syria???s neighbors must come together to bolster regional stability and prevent terror groups like Lebanon???s Hezbollah from executing their post-Assad plans.  Syria and its ally Iran armed Hezbollah with thousands of rockets which are poised for a fresh war with Israel, an outcome Iran may instigate in order to maintain its influence in the region.

Further, there is concern the collapse of Syria could lead to a civil war in Lebanon and spark violence elsewhere such as in Jordan.  Fighting has already spilled over into parts of Lebanon and Syrian refugees are spreading a new form of chaos that is destabilizing the Mideast.

???What you have in Syria is that the Middle East is coming apart; a new form of chaos is replacing what has existed,??? said Dore Gold of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs to the New York Times.  ???The fundamentals you???re working with in the region are changing???.???  There must be regional cooperation to address this new paradigm.

Finally, Syria needs help rebuilding its civil society, economy, and re-integrating refugees.   Syria lived under the oppressive Assad dynasty for 42 years and as a result it needs help on many fronts.  Bring teams of relief workers, civil society and government advisers from across the world to work side-by-side with Syrians to help that country heal.

Assad is on his way out and preparations for Syria???s future must begin immediately if the best outcome ??? a stable democratic unity government ??? is to become a reality.

That outcome will depend on good leadership and the international community???s long-term commitment and investment in Syria.  Otherwise the past 18 months of violence could become a pretext for a very bad future.