I am not sure whether the term “glass cancer” is used in other Arab countries, but in Egypt it refers to a crack that has spread into a web of tiny splinters across a windshield, making it impossible for a driver or his passengers to see the road ahead. The lack of visibility is not the only danger. There is also the constant risk that the windshield might break, sending its tiny fragments in all directions, causing blindness if a shard hits someone in the eye, or bleeding if it shoots into another part of the body. The “glass cancer” may not constitute an existential threat to the passengers of the car, but it is a serious threat and it tests their wisdom in handling that threat which could place them and others in even greater jeopardy.
Syria suffers this condition in an advanced state. It has splintered into tiny fragments. A glance at any of the maps we see in the various media is sufficient to inform us that Syria is not just split into government and opposition, Arabs and Kurds, or Sunnis and Shia. All these levels are split into other smaller pieces. Moreover, the government, the Bashar Al-Assad regime, only asserts complete control in one particular area. After that, its control diminishes in other areas because it is effectively shared with other forces on the ground. Hizbullah, for example. These forces do not receive their orders from Damascus or Beirut but directly from Tehran which transmits its strategic directives to its forces and their allies on the ground in Syria. When Russia entered the Syrian civil war, its alliance with the government became one that did not keep Russia from asserting control over military, air and naval bases. Russia also has groups that are subordinate to or cooperate with it and to which it offers aid and arms.
The opposition, too, is just a big heading. Long ago, it consisted of the political forces that led the “Syrian Spring” in Daraa, but no one hears much of them anymore in the “Syrian coalition”. The opposition is divided into left and right, soldiers and civilians, secularists and Islamists, ex-terrorists and combatants and non-combatant Muslim Brothers. Sometimes some parts of the opposition are given names such as the Syrian Democratic Forces or the “Democratic Movement” which consists of Kurds and Arabs because of US pressures to have some type of coalition umbrella to use on the ground. As for Sunnis, you will find them in both the opposition and the government in various loud colours. Shia you will find subdivided into Shia, Alawis, Druze and other sects.
In short, Syria is a severe case of “glass cancer”. Visibility is almost zero and a flying pebble or the smallest bump in the road could destroy the whole car and everyone in it. The only hope for a solution to that condition that threatens Syria’s life is for the car to come to a stop so that all can pause to catch their breath and reflect. In warfare this is called a truce or ceasefire. Without one, it will be impossible to undertake two crucial steps. The first is to tape the pieces of the windshield together, horizontally and vertically, so that the fragments of glass can become larger sheets. In the case of a cessation of hostilities, this will enable forms of convergence around mutual interests in a country in which every party has vowed to kill every other. Ultimately, fighters are human beings too. They have human needs that have been thwarted by all the smoke, fire and destruction of war.
The second step is to replace the broken windshield with a new one, which means to make the Syrian car serviceable again since it will once more become possible to see the road. Needless to say, that job is far from easy. It requires specialists in the removal of the cancer-ridden glass and in replacing it with a healthier more transparent glass. The specialists, in this case, would most likely be the folks at the UN. But that international organisation does not operate in a vacuum. The great powers — Russia and the US, above all — will inevitably have an opinion. Russia will adhere to its defence of what it terms the “legitimate” leadership while the US will adhere to its position that that term can not be applied to a leadership under which hundreds of thousands of people were killed, millions were wounded, and dozens of cities were destroyed. Both powers will agree on the need to consult the Syrian people through the ballot box. But elections are only possible when peace has been established.
The problem is therefore much more intricate than everyone imagined and the glass transplant operation will be impossible to carry out until everyone realises that sacrificing the car and its passengers will pave the way to the destruction of everyone else. Then there will be no end to the story. The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda are lurking to pounce, not just on Syria and Iraq, but the entire region which will be torn by groups that make war for extremist reasons or because, for them, killing has become a habit and no longer requires a reason. Dismemberment and disintegration will invite all sorts of little civil wars, a “Somalisation” in which everyone is at war with everyone else — a state of pure and unadulterated anarchy.
There can be no solution unless it takes as its starting point the recognition that everyone has the right to ride the car and the need to come to terms, through free and fair elections, over a system that will guarantee that right. The Arab experience has established that the “quota system” as applied in Iraq, has had disastrous consequences and that its Lebanese application produced an exceptional Lebanese case that gave rise to difficult problems with instability and lack of government. The federal idea may offer a type of multi-tiered solution that will allow for equality between all, on the one hand, and reflect their relative weight, on the other. A single currency, economic market, national defence force, and foreign policy will have the power to sustain cohesion and unity, especially since all are against terrorism and against the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and their sister groups. Unfortunately, the only alternative to federalism is total chaos. The notion that the Baathist dictatorship could somehow turn the clock back to a strict and over-centralised system is pure fantasy.
The key lies in the hands of the international community and its major powers. If we have learned the lessons from the divisions created by the Sykes-Picot agreement in the past and the divisions created by the civil war today, then a compromise solution in the form of a federated state might offer a clear window for the future. To ignore this is to allow the cancer-ridden glass to shatter in everyone’s face. At that point, the car will have vanished along with the keys and the only thing left in anyone’s hands will be thin air.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.