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Seeking a Federal Solution to the Syrian Conflict

This policy brief argues that ending the Syrian civil war is one of the most important goals in the world at the moment. The immense and ongoing suffering of the Syrian people must end. Furthermore, the war is the major driver of the refugee crisis that is threatening to overwhelm both neighboring states and the European Union. In the chaos of Syria, groups such as ISIS have managed to carve out enclaves that they can rule as de facto states. Finally, the war is becoming increasingly internationalized, with both local and distant powers supporting one or another faction.

A return to a country governed on the basis of numerous semi-independent cities and regions reflects previous arrangements in Syria’s history. In this sense, a state based on three main, essentially separate, entities is feasible. We also have a model for this in the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia.

This solution assumes that some form of the current regime would continue to rule in Damascus and would have limited power over the entire country. While the current conflict has taken on a sectarian aspect featuring clashes between Sunni and Shiite (Alawite) confessional groups, this has not been a major factor in Syria’s history. A cease-fire, along with major humanitarian relief coordinated by the United Nations, must commence even while negotiations continue. Given the failure of the September 2016 attempt, it is clear there are real difficulties in negotiating and enforcing a cease-fire.

The recent regime victory in Aleppo, combined with apparent Russian and Iranian desire to scale back their involvement, suggests that it may be practical to build a cease-fire on the basis of the current division of the country. The need to deal with ISIS will remain. Not only will the militants try to derail any peace settlement, but also it is important that they do not retain any territorial control. This will be crucial as a precursor to any effective negotiated end to the war.

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