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Envisioning a post-Assad Syria as civil war grinds on

August 29, 2012 |  5:00 am

Assad posters near aleppo
With no end in sight for the bloody fratricide ravaging Syria, and with the world's most powerful nations bitterly divided over what to do next, U.S. and European diplomats have redirected their efforts from trying to halt the civil war to planning for a new Syria once it is over.

GlobalFocusThe blueprints emerging are necessarily vague, given that no one yet knows how or when Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime will fall or what constellation of political opponents will replace it. The proposals also lack any common strategy, reflecting discordant views among advocates of a free Syria on how best to aid the outgunned rebels. Washington is more wary than its allies of sending arms that could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants who have infiltrated the civil war to gain a new foothold in the Middle East.

French President Francois Hollande this week called on rebel factions to cobble together a transitional government that the international community can officially recognize and work with. But U.S. diplomats and political analysts argue that Assad's opponents are too fractious to put forward a united front or cohesive strategy for the war's end game. And with President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney equally loath to endorse bolder action on Syria -- fearing another costly, faraway conflict -- responsibility for contingency planning has fallen to academia instead of the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, the United States Institute of Peace issued "The Day After" plan for a post-Assad Syria. The 133-page statement of goals and principles for a new Syria was six months in the making. It was produced by 45 Syrian opposition figures brought together by the State Department-funded institute's Middle East experts and partners from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. It is long on institution-building wonk-speak and short on how the opposition is supposed to get to the post-Assad era. But analysts hailed it as a worthy undertaking even as government and rebel forces are mired in protracted battles to control key areas of Damascus and Aleppo.

No representatives of the Free Syrian Army fighting the regime were party to the post-Assad project, said Steven Heydemann, a senior advisor on Middle East initiatives who coordinated the talks among Syrian exiles, defectors and regime opponents who managed to travel abroad or participate via video linkup.

"The group very sensibly recognized there was no way to anticipate how the transition would happen," instead focusing on identifying the challenges that would confront the next leadership whether Assad flees, negotiates an exit or is deposed in a palace coup, Heydemann said. However the Assad dynasty ends, he noted, Syrians will have to grapple with divisive questions on how to treat those accused of war crimes, deter revenge killings and get the economy and social services back in working order.

While the United States is holding firm to its policy of providing only nonlethal aid to the rebels, Heydemann said, Washington could play a more effective role in coordinating other outside support. He pointed to the mounting incidents of Islamic extremists waging strikes against the Assad regime for their own purposes and weaponry coming in from autocratic supporters like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as giving "a Wild West quality" to help for the underdog rebels.

"The United States is very concerned that support from outside for elements of the Syrian opposition not lead to strengthening of Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalist forces that becomes problematic in the postwar process," said Charles Ries, a career diplomat heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy.  "But our reluctance [to supply arms] has paradoxically caused the division of the Syrian opposition and has encouraged those Islamist elements to find their own sources of support and influence."

The task eluding the United States and its allies is uniting the disparate opposition forces inside and outside Syria into a cohesive leadership that they can support and ratchet up the pressure on Assad, Ries said. 

Bilal Y. Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, shares other analysts' concerns that Islamic militants are filling the vacuum left by a hands-off U.S. policy toward the rebels. But it would be "ill-advised," he said, for the United States to recognize a transitional government that isn't broadly inclusive of the myriad ethnic, sectarian, religious and political factions in Syria.

"This administration is nowhere near doing that," Saab said of the prospects for a representative rebel leadership.

That said, initiatives like "The Day After" are laudable for keeping the Syrian opposition forces and their allies focused on the daunting challenges of building a stable nation once the civil war ends, Saab said.

"This is the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. entity to date to think about scenarios for after Assad," Saab said of the peace institute project. "It's not putting the cart before the horse."

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Follow Carol J. Williams at twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

Photo: A rebel supporter treads on posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad lining the floor of a Free Syrian Army office in the town of Tal Rifaat, near Aleppo. Fighting has ground into a bloody impasse as international mediators differ on how to end the 17-month-old conflict. In Washington, the U.S. presidential election has relegated the Syrian civil war  to the diplomatic sidelines. Credit: Phil Moore / AFP/Getty Images

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