James D. Fearon is the Theodore and Geballe Professor in Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Sciences, Professor of Political Science and a Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. His research and work focus on political violence and armed conflict. On February 1, 2016, I sat down with him to discuss the complexities of the Syrian Civil War and the turbulent road to peace. Below is a lightly-edited transcript of that interview.


Vivan Malkani: In your 2013 article, “Obstacles to Ending the Civil War in Syria,” you assert, “the war will probably become less deadly over time. It is simply difficult to sustain such an intense conflict for more than a few years.” Just today, 71 people died in blasts near the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeinab south of Damascus. Do you think that your 2013 prediction still holds true today? Have we seen violence become more or less deadly?

James Fearon: I am surprised that it has not declined more, and I would say that I was too optimistic. It has been remarkable how sustained the high-intensity violence has been in Syria. In terms of the rate of killing, it has been one of the most intense civil conflicts in the last sixty years. There has been something of a decline from 2012, but we’re talking about from rates of 8000 per month to 5000 per month. So much of the population has been displaced or left the country, and you’d think it can’t go on like this forever, yet the violence just seems to keep going at horrific levels.

VM: A simplified way to look at the conflict would be Assad (Government) versus the “other forces,” including ISIS. Either both sides seem to be equally powerful or their particular strategies aren’t working. The government has not backed down on any policy and ISIS is trying as many things as they can. Does this help explain why has the violence been sustained for so long?

JF: I think that the basic problem which makes the war so hard to conclude is similar to that experienced in many other civil wars, and is that power sharing. Once you get to a point where you have multiple armed groups that are not easily crushed by the other side, the prospects of them arranging some kind of mutual disarmament and sharing of power are limited, because of the threat of parties trying to kill each other while they disarm or are disarming. That’s the core problem.

In this case it’s made significantly worse by the fact that the Syrian conflict has become a proxy regional or international conflict and the prospects for one side winning are not really great. In 2013, the article that I wrote mentioned that at that time, it was looking like the Assad regime was making some real progress, whereas a half year earlier, the expectation was that the government would collapse. Since 2013, Assad’s success has stalled, and the war has entered another phase of stalemate. Now there have been some loss of opposition, heading into these talks in Geneva. When one side starts to do better, its international supporters (Russia or Iran on Assad’s side and Saudi, Turkey and the US somewhat supporting the Kurds and other rebels) shore up their preferred groups and that contributes to both the killing and the sustained effect.

VM: You mentioned how this civil war has escalated into an international conflict. One of the strongest claims that Russia is making is that Assad is the last line of defense against ISIS. Is that a true statement, and if so, how does affect the international peace process?

JF: Let me answer by talking about the U.S. position, and the Obama administration’s position, which I think has made sense. The Obama administration has said from the start that Assad needs to go. U.S. officials walked back a bit by saying maybe not immediately, but they have been very definite in saying that they can’t see a future for Syria or a durable end to the war unless Assad and his administration goes. That’s where I think the Russian position is not plausible, to think that you could get back to a Alawite-dominated Syria, as it was in 2010. On the other hand, the United States is not in favor of going all in to throw out Assad militarily. They see correctly that if Assad does go, the risks of the situation getting worse are high, because of an intra-Sunni war which already is happening at a pretty serious level. I’d imagine that if one particular group takes Damascus, the other ones will fight them. It’ll be a fight over Damascus like the fight over Kabul in Afghanistan, after the Soviet regime fell there. The other big risk is massacre of minorities. There are still a lot of non-Sunni groups there, and if the Assad regime fell, they might be exposed to genocidal violence from Daesh (ISIS) and other groups.

It seems bad regardless of whether Assad goes and that has been behind the U.S. inaction. You said that Assad is the last line of defense according to the Russians. Well if the Assad regime collapsed, there would be a danger of ISIS becoming the dominant power in Damascus for a time. However, I think that Al Nusra or another Sunni rebel group can be at least as formidable as ISIS, and it’s not like if the Assad regime collapsed everyone would bow down to al-Baghdadi [the head of ISIS]. There would be an intra-Sunni war and it’s not obvious that ISIS would do especially well there. They might keep their control of Raqqa or other Eastern towns where they are strong. Hard to say.

VM: The way you’re predicting it, Syria seems to have a pretty catastrophic future. In terms of the international intervention of some sort, should the United States maintain the status quo of ambiguous, not-fully-committed support?

JF: The U.S. policy (alongside a range of UN and European and Middle Eastern diplomats) is very much supporting talks to arrange some sort of ceasefire or at least exchanges of population and hostages and prisoners. The larger idea is to get the Syrians to talk about some sort of power sharing and negotiate it. The fundamental idea, as it was in Iraq, has been that power sharing among the forces in existence is necessary to the end the violence. I find it hard to imagine that you could have a successful agreement on some sort of staged transition with elections some day, that you could actually make this work without a major international presence in terms of forces. I can’t image agreement between the significantly divided international interests (particularly between Saudis and Iranians) being easy to attain.

VM: One issue is that there is no structured political opposition right now. Any opposition has become completely fractured, which one might expect to worsen the power vacuum if Assad does fall. How could a peaceful election take place in such a situation?

JF: Operating under many political and normative constraints, the international community has a public theory about what to do. The theory is we sit down, talk, talk instead of fight, hold elections at some point, and maybe write a new constitution. Syrians need to work this out, but they need power sharing. One of the premises here is that Syria is not going to be divided up. That was something which everyone agreed on, that Syria would remain intact and sovereign. I’m not a fan of partitioning states that have fallen to ethnic or civil war. Sudan is a great example of a cure being worse than the the disease.

In this case, instead of saying we need to go directly to power sharing, it makes sense to agree on safe zones. There would be four safe zones and an ISIS area that hopefully everyone continues to fight to reduce. Each zone would have an international backer. There would effectively be an international coalition because countries would have to agree to this. There would be a western and northwestern zone that was where the regime including Damascus and some big cities there, with Russia in charge. I’m basically supporting the idea put out by an Iran report written by James Dobbins. It amounts to recognizing that a centralized power sharing agreement is neither likely to happen nor practical. If we want to end the killing and the drastic suffering, the fighting has to stop. The best way to get there is mutually negotiated safe zones. The Assad regime agrees to this because the opposition agrees to give up on certain parts of big towns, whereas the opposition gets international backing in control over areas.

VM: The only way Assad would agree to this is if the regime still retained overall control over the zones, alongside the international coalition members.

JF: Yes, this is not deposing Assad, that would be negotiated later. If you could get an agreement that created these safe zones and control areas like Aleppo and Hama, and provides for an election many years down the line, that would be potentially great, but realistically that might not happen.

VM: In 2013, you predicted, “Even an outcome that is mainly a regime victory plus some cosmetic ‘power sharing’ with relative moderates in the opposition would probably not eliminate a continued, lower-level but still very bloody campaign by Islamist radicals.” Do you still think that this is true today in 2016?

JF: Yes, that seems to be very clearly the case. The Dobbins Plan just mentions leaving this large space in Eastern Syria that is de facto ISIS controlled. However, another potential benefit of this kind of de factopartition via internationally guaranteed safe zones, would be that you could then hopefully get all these parties to agree on turning their forces to containing or eliminating ISIS.

VM: What do you see as the future of the Syrian Civil War?

JF: I think we may see, coming out of the negotiations that are happening now, some low-level agreements on humanitarian access. I don’t think there will be a quick move to negotiated power sharing. That would be very surprising to me. It seems like it’s hard to see how we will get any significant or real end to the fighting without major changes in the international contest or disagreements.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely. So, I suppose I expect things to continue as they are until there is some shock at the international level that changes alignment, or a shock at the domestic level in the form of a coup, or an assassination on government or opposition side that’s less likely given how many rebel groups there are. That really makes for sudden change, to shake things up. That’s very hard to anticipate. Those would be my guesses. I would be very surprised if all of a sudden, things come to an end. I could see things becoming gradually less intense, for the same reasons I was talking about in 2013, but as we’ve gone over, I was too optimistic about how quickly they’d get less intense.

Vivan Malkani is a freshman studying political science.