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David Ignatius: Charting a Syrian way out

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: January 6, 2013

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. The plan would also encourage the rule of law in areas that have been liberated from Assad's control, stemming the growing trend toward warlordism and revenge killings.

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 U.S. and British governments support the ideas of accountability and reconciliation, in general, but haven't endorsed any specific formula for Syria.

The plan was prepared by the Syrian Support Group, which backs moderate elements within the Free Syrian Army, with help from international lawyers. The idea is similar to the “truth and reconciliation” process that helped resolve bitter conflicts in South Africa, Rwanda and Northern Ireland. “It sends a strong positive signal to the people of Syria that victory for the rebels is inevitable” and that the new government “will deliver justice, compensate victims and be compassionate towards all,” explains a legal memo prepared by McCue & Partners, a London firm that is advising the Syrian Support Group.

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 amnesty if they agreed to cooperate. The sooner they defected, the more leverage they might have under a future government. As part of the political transition, a compensation fund would be created to aid victims of the war.

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.

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