By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON – To help oust President Bashar al-Assad, a Syrian opposition group has drafted a plan for a transitional justice system that would impose harsh penalties against diehard members of his inner circle but provide amnesty for most of his Alawite supporters.
The goal is to provide a legal framework that reassures Alawites this isn’t a fight to the death, and that they will have a place in a post-Assad Syria.
To me, this legal transition plan is the best idea advanced so far by the Syrian rebels – because it addresses not just the brutality of the Assad regime but the real danger that Syria will descend into a chaotic failed state as the war continues and hatreds deepen. The idea appears to have drawn interest from the U.S., British and French governments, and other backers of the opposition.
The plan was prepared by the Syrian Support Group, which backs moderate elements within the Free Syrian Army, with help from international lawyers. Advocates hope the international community will also endorse the plan at the next Friends of Syria meeting in Italy.
The idea is similar to the “truth and reconciliation” process that helped resolve bitter conflicts in South Africa, Rwanda and Northern Ireland.
The transition process would begin with identification of 100 regime insiders whose defection could accelerate Assad’s fall. Some of these Assad supporters might be offered partial financial amnesty if they agreed to cooperate.
Alawites who aren’t in the inner circle would be offered “safe passage,” explains a Syrian Support Group memo outlining the plan.
Unless Alawite fears about communal survival are addressed directly, “this issue will not be solved necessarily by Assad leaving power, and will create a major risk for Syria’s future stability in years to come,” the Syrian Support Group memo warns.
To implement the plan, the opposition would gather a team of Syrian legal experts. Among the possible names suggested are Suhair al-Atassi, a prominent human rights activist and a vice president of the opposition coalition; Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge and longtime dissident; Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer who won the 2011 Sakharov Prize; Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer who has represented Kurdish protesters; and leaders of Free Syria legal groups in Turkey and Jordan.
By using modern legal tools for asset tracing and recovery, Syrian lawyers would have both carrots and sticks for regime change.
As with everything affecting Syria, time is running out before the country collapses into an anarchic failed state. As rebels take control of areas, such as the northern suburbs of Aleppo, some brigade commanders are already taking the law into their own hands. “Some Free Syrian Army are acting more like the shabiha they used to fight,” says one Syrian source.
What Syria needs urgently is a path to a new government based on the rule of law. The plan prepared by the Syrian Support Group is the best road map I’ve seen, and the international community should embrace it quickly.
David Ignatius’ email address is email@example.com.