Two observations on the tragedy in Syria

1. War always inflicts grave rights abuses on residents of the war zone. Additionally, its fog allows– and its passions encourage– the commission of a large variety of atrocities such as are very rarely committed in times of peace. Hence, actions tending toward the exacerbation of tensions can never be said to “help” the rights and wellbeing of the numerous human persons who lives in– or or displaced from– the zone of contention… And all efforts undertaken to preserve and protect “human rights” should aim first and foremost at the de-escalation of tensions and a relentless search for negotiated rather than fought-for or imposed means of resolution.
2. In Syria, the situation of the country’s 22 million residents has already been grievously damaged by the past 15 months of tensions that have escalated to the point of an extremely damaging civil war. The social fabric of the country has been very badly eroded– a form of destruction that is even more damaging than the concomitant destruction of physical infrastructure. Whether President Asad goes or stays, it will take Syria many years (and leadership qualities very much stronger than anything we have seen to date from either the government or the extremely fissiparous opposition), in order to recover and heal.
Thus, the key issue now is not, as so many westerners still frame it, “whether Asad goes or stays.” The issue is how Syria’s people can best be helped to pull out of the vortex of sectarian violence into which they are now very rapidly being sucked. Based on all my research and experiences relating to societies mired in, or managing to escape from grievous inter-group violence, it is clear to me that only a pan-Syrian negotiation over forms of government, accountability, and intergroup relations going forward can achieve that.
And to succeed, this negotiation must include, not exclude, the current regime. It was a negotiation of this type that succeeded in South Africa in bringing about a relatively peaceful transition from vicious minority rule to full democracy. In Burma/Myanmar, Sec. Clinton is fully engaged in helping to broker just such a negotiation. The actions of the apartheid government in South Africa and the junta in Burma, were no less brutal than those of the Asad regime in Syria.
In addition, in Syria, it is clear that the opposition is far less committed than, say, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Burma to the pursuit of a nonviolent path. In South Africa, the ANC did have a military wing. But its acts of violence were few and far between, and inside South Africa they were generally conducted along lines that respected the requirement to attack only military targets. In Syria, by contrast, far too much of the armed opposition has been involved in acts of sectarian violence or other kinds of inhumane violence. There is thus very little “moral” case to be made as between the acts of those men of anti-regime violence, many of them salafis or jihadis, and the acts of the regime– though the regime does command firepower far greater than that available to the oppositionists.

6 thoughts on “Two observations on the tragedy in Syria

  1. Edward

    I don’t understand the refusal of the oppositions in Syria and Libya to negotiate with their regimes.

  2. annie

    edward, i think it is because they don’t want an end result that includes assad, they want regime change.

  3. Yousef

    Helena,
    A negotiated resolution in Syria is the ideal way out of the mess, but, unfortunately, even the very patient Kofi Annan has concluded that such a resolution has become out of reach.
    Unlike most governments in the world, the actual Syrian government is a clan rule. The last prime minister in Syria before the uprising, an economist, told a group of Syrians in New York in recent months that all his recommendations on economic policy were rejected by Assad, sometimes after he initially accepted them. It is well known in Syria that Assad is often overruled by his mother, or other members of the clan. An adviser to the president said that after he suggested negotiations with the opposition, Assad stopped taking his calls. The defense minister in the initial stage of the Syrian uprising opposed crushing the demonstrations by military means and was immediately replaced. This was done with several governors of districts.
    The regime has its own opposition, set up by the president himself. The are given a fancy name; “The progressive Front of Political Forces and Parties”. The parliament is a list of names, approved by the president before the so-called elections take place.
    When school children demonstrated in Daraa in March 2011, those children were arrested, tortured to death and their disfigured bodies returned to their families. That was the spark of the uprising. The demonstrators, who initially demanded reform were described by as infiltrators and agents of external powers. The regime is yet to recognize the existence of the political opposition and it calls every opposition member as part of an external conspiracy. Even those who defected from the Syrian army are called terrorists used by foreign powers, mainly the US, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
    The disunity of the opposition is an excuse for members of the international community to do nothing. The west wants an opposition that commits to be in line with western interests and joins the Saudi camp once it takes power. In every revolution there were different factions, divided by ideology and political orientation. In Syria, all opposition factions have committed in their Cairo conference to a democratic, civil, inclusive and pluralistic state. They declared their willingness to work with any one in the current regime that did not engage in killing citizens.
    Currently, the regime is unleashing the full force if the air force against entire neighborhoods in Aleppo and turning residential buildings into rubble. Some neighborhoods have been bombarded without interruption for more than 24 hours.
    The regime’s TV has been declaring that the regime is engaged in clearing these neighborhoods of terrorists, knowing full well that those are the Free Syrian Army, who are mainly defectors of the regular army, which came into being only because the regime refused to negotiate and resorted to the military/security solution exclusively.
    When Bashar Al-Assad inherited power from his late father in 2000, he gave the impression that he intended to embark on a reform process. Several intellectuals published a list of demands (Damascus Spring 2001), such as cancelling the state emergency rules and the marshal laws, allowing the establishment of political parties and freedom of the press. Non of those demands included regime change. Yet, the authors were jailed for periods of 5 to 10. Again, in 2005, a group of writers, artists and public figures made similar demands in the so-called “Damascus Declaration” and again they were jailed or exiled. Had Assad responded to those simple demands back then, Syria would have avoided the current destructive mess.

  4. Salah

    ” The issue is how Syria’s people can best be helped to pull out of the vortex of sectarian violence into which they are now very rapidly being sucked”.
    Helena,
    Your statement very shallow conclusion and answers to what the reality on the ground.
    I will ask few questions here I hope you look deeper to the case:
    1- Are there foreign fingers now playing in Syria
    2- Was there “sectarian” conflict in Syria for the past decades? I add may be there minor uncomfortable of Alaawie regime but people living their life
    3- From past war in Iraq, “sectarian violence” its purely Iraqi made war?
    My answer simply NO & NO. if you think in any level there were “sectarian tensions” in Iraq as most western media and writers did should the world saw the “sectarian violence “ starting on the day of the fall of the regime in Baghdad not after 2 years or more in 2005?
    Helena let face it it’s not Syrian of Iraqi problem here I agree the bad regimes they need to go in such way with minim casualties of innocent people, but we saw US and 33 countries what they done in Iraq from 1991-2003 and after, will tell us both are in same level of doing grievously damaged on residents of the war zone.

  5. Edward

    Annie,
    I agree with you that the rebels want Assad to go. However, their refusal to talk with the regime sounds strange to me because a civil war could turn Syria into another failed state. Did the rebels in El Salvador refuse to talk with that regime? I have been trying to think of historical examples of this hard line. Maybe the Contras or the Russian revolution or the French revolution refused to talk?
    I am suspicious, as I think Helena and others are, that the U.S., or at least some elements here, are trying to keep this conflict going as they did during the Iran-Iraq war. Given the bloody U.S. record of interventions everybody should question U.S. involvement.

  6. Allan Christelow

    What is really needed here is effective mediation. It is interesting to compare the present situation with the crisis of 1860 which began with Druze attacks against Christians. It was an Algerian, the exiled Amir `Abd al-Qadir, who stepped into keep the crisis under control. And now we have another Algerian, Lakhdar Brahimi. There is certainly much doubt that he will succeed. But we do think of what is needed to provide effective mediation in a situation like this. For more detail see my post on Middle East Experience.

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