No Matter How Far Off, Mediator Prepares For Postwar Syria
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some Syrians want to talk about what comes after their disastrous war. Syria's government is close to attacking Idlib province, one of the last areas held by rebel groups. But what comes after that? Salman Shaikh has been thinking about that for years.
SALMAN SHAIKH: If you are going to make that very difficult transition from war to peace, you need more than just military tools.
INSKEEP: Think of Shaikh as a kind of outside consultant for the war or, he hopes, for peace. He brings together opposition leaders, armed rebels, foreign governments, various stakeholders in Syria to try to talk through their issues in an informal setting. And now he's watching a possible formal set of talks. The United Nations has been moving toward sponsoring what would be called a constitutional committee backed by foreign governments but made up of Syrians who would talk through the post-war government.
SHAIKH: More than anything else, we need Western governments - we need regional governments to also get much more involved in this effort of a more inclusive process in the constitutional committee.
INSKEEP: So your question is not immediate humanitarian tactical - like the province of Idlib - what happens as government forces close in on this province where several million people are taking shelter? You are involved in these behind-the-scenes talks that are trying to look beyond the conflict, beyond the war, and asking what kind of Syria is going to be there. Is that right?
SHAIKH: Even if President Assad and his government got all the territory, he's still presiding over a very weak and divided country where he only still controls two-thirds. The United States is staying in one-third, where there's Kurdish and our (ph) partners in the northeast. There is no money, so we need a political process.
INSKEEP: What would Assad's leverage be to giving some power to opposition groups that his troops have crushed on the battlefield?
SHAIKH: I think we should be very clear-eyed that the Assad government is not going to want to lose control of a political track. It's done its absolute best to block one. Having said that, you know, the Russians, I believe, do need some movement. And they need to be joined by the United States. There needs to be, behind the scenes, some very hard talking based on some concrete ideas of, how do you effect a real transition in Syria? And I believe that maybe we're at a moment where that can really start to take root.
INSKEEP: Do you worry at all that your well-intentioned work would end up effectively helping Assad? Because he's going to stay in power. You're effectively accepting he's going to stay in power. And now the question is, how do you bring in the opposition to accept that?
SHAIKH: Our work is focused on bringing as many Syrians to the table who have a role to play. The fate of Assad, which I think is what you're really getting at, is something that will be determined over a period of time. I think it is interesting that even the United States and other partners are not sort of focusing on that. They're focusing first and foremost on building leverage for a political track and then pushing a serious one where the kinds of mechanisms such as a constitutional committee are empowered, and their results actually matter.
INSKEEP: What's the point of working on a constitution if the president is still going to be Bashar al-Assad, who is obviously going to disregard any law that he needs to disregard in his view?
SHAIKH: That's a very fair and a very good question. And, of course, that's what should concentrate the minds of Syrians, as well as the international backers of such a process - that it is a truly empowered one. And if that was the case, I would suspect that you would start to see amendments and mechanisms which may not guarantee any president for life.
INSKEEP: Meaning that you believe if the right people from a broad swath of Syrian society are given the power to draft a constitution, they're going to draft a constitution that severely limits the power of the president?
SHAIKH: Let me put it this way to you, Steve. I was in Beirut not that long ago. I meet with a lot of people who come from inside the country. I met one who was not at all an opposition figure. And I asked that person, you know, so how many of you really want change now? And that person looked at me and said, about 15 million of us.
INSKEEP: So this man is saying the vast majority of the country is ready for something different?
SHAIKH: If you're really going to make that transition from war to peace. And in that respect, the Syrians must be empowered. And the international community, led by the United States on the political track working with the Russians in particular, is our best hope of actually arriving at something like that.
INSKEEP: Salman Shaikh of The Shaikh Group, thanks very much.
SHAIKH: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.