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Next steps in Syria after Kofi Annan's exit

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Continued high-level defections, such as that of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab this week, may persuade Moscow and Beijing that Assad’s days in power are numbered. But more effort should be made at convincing both capitals that by assisting with a transition, they have an opportunity to help shape “the day after.”

More sanctions may be too little too late to compel the dictator to go, but losing all international support – other than Iran – could have a stronger impact on Assad’s decision-making process. This may require offering Assad exile and immunity. So be it.

However, focusing too narrowly on Assad’s departure may lead the international community to miss the bigger picture and the importance of encouraging a political transition.

Syria is stuck in an all-out struggle between two sides that still see the outcome as a zero-sum game. As such, the chances for the post-Assad period to see a gradual end to the hostilities seem grim. Simply put, if not properly managed, the exit of Assad could lead his entourage to fight even harder, leading to more, not less, violence.

Here, the international community can play a positive role by attempting to bring all parties to the political table. To do so, both “pro-regime” and “pro-opposition” countries should work to provide incentives to bring the two sides to negotiate after the departure of Assad, while devising credible security guarantees for all Syrians.

For example, Western countries like the United States that are now increasing their assistance to Syrian opposition forces should ask the anti-Assad forces to reach out to the Alawite community and to some sectors within the regime. They should also make further assistance conditional on refraining from indiscriminate reprisals against the Alawites or any other sectarian group. This could make the difference between a negotiated transition and another round of war.

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