A sprint or a marathon in Syria?

By Harry Hagopian
29 Apr 2011

An updated version of this article appears here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14694

It has become clear that the series of ‘Arab Spring’ awakenings that erupted in the Middle East & North Africa region in December 2010 have now also reached Syria in earnest. So after four woeful weeks of unrest which we managed to follow on our television screens despite the near-total blackout imposed by the authorities, what European perspective can one suggest to those events that are challenging the myth of Syrian staying power?

• Starting with the facts on the ground, there are well over 400 casualties to date from those popular uprisings, with hundreds more having been taken into custody - including intellectuals and activists. There is also an electricity blackout in parts of Syria (which means that mobile phones or cameras cannot be recharged easily) and rumours are circulating about small defections from the regular army - particularly the Fifth Division, 132nd Brigade - that have led to standoffs with the elite Fourth Division in the centre of the southern town of Dera’a.

• The UK, alongside France, Germany and Portugal, are still toiling over a UN statement that would condemn Syrian heavy-handed violence against its citizens. This is an important first step not only in the sense that an international body is seen to be politically proactive, but more so because the UN Security Council remains the only organ that could refer any perpetrator(s) of crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court in The Hague when the country in question is not a signatory of the Statute of Rome - such as Syria.

• Whether a case for international justice could be made for ‘crimes against humanity’ - as Amnesty International argues - depends not only on the number of deaths but also on the admissible evidence that the photos coming out of Syria would provide to the ICC. Following the Libyan case, there is now a juridical expectation that culprits will be brought to justice and the international community must be seen to do something about it.

• Who will be referred to the ICC if we ever get there? Much as many European leaders refuse to accept that President Bashar el-Assad is directly choreographing let alone condoning those violent events as they unfold across parts of Syria, and much as there is strong speculation that his younger brother, uncle and brother-in-law are directing the attrition by the largely Alawite generals and the six security forces, it remains a fact that the president ultimately bears command and therefore legal responsibility.

• Let us also remember that Syria is neither Libya nor Tunisia: it is much bigger, with a population of 22 million, and a significant political player in the region with enormous strategic concern for the West due to its geographical, historical and political weight. It is clearly relevant to the management of the Arab-Israeli conflict, remains a close ally to Iran, is an understudy in Iraq and supports different factions in Lebanon and Palestine.

• Presently, there is no talk yet of any UNSC Resolutions for a no-fly zone or other military sanctions. After all, whilst the UN and the Western powers could at least nail their mast to an Opposition Council in Libya with its fig-leaf of legitimacy, the Syrian ‘opposition’ only consists of a National Initiative for Change that is an a mix of groups challenging autocracy and long-standing oppressiveness. Besides, and unlike Libya, the Arab League or its constituent Arab countries - such as Qatar - might be loath to rock further the Syrian establishment.

• Although Syria witnessed some freedoms in the past decade under President Bashar el-Assad, the fact remains that there is today an absence of democracy, widespread corruption and plutocracy, human rights abuses, one-party rule, economic and environmental stress, excessive security dominance as well as burgeoning youth unemployment. Syria remains a tough police state despite the increasing demands for political legitimacy.

• What about the future? Will Turkey manage to play a key role in defusing the situation? Not really, since it juggles its multiple regional agendas. Will the EU influence current events given that 25 per cent of Syrian trade is with Europe? I suspect not either. What about more stringent US sanctions? I doubt the US Administration has the stomach for it. I am not a soothsayer, but I would suggest we are now truly in the hands of events with the army, security agencies or secret police largely calling the shots. A tipping point could come if cracks in loyalty appear within the conscript army and it disobeys orders. This is why it might be helpful to watch the periphery in places such as Dera’a or the larger coastal towns like Homs that might be the chink in the armour of the regime. But whichever way it goes, this will inevitably be a protracted struggle - a marathon and not a sprint.

• Given its strategic importance on many fronts, any continuity or change in Syria is bound to affect the whole region - something Libya, Tunisia or even Bahrain and Yemen will not do, and hence Western caution - and one of the countries that will be impacted one way or another by the repercussions of any major shifts is Lebanon. This is perhaps why the Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros at Ra'i recently intimated, following his conversations with four Christian leaders at Bkerke, that “reconciliations, agreement and dialogue are among the manifestations of the resurrection.”

In Animal Farm, George Orwell suggested that all revolutions are doomed to failure! Perhaps, but let us also recall that the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents resorted to bullets and lost out, whilst the Yemeni president also tried bullets and is now eyeing his exit strategy and Colonel Gaddafi hides in his own desolate hinterland. So today I plead with President Assad to prevent any rerun of his father’s ‘Hama rules’ of February 1982 and to opt instead for the responsible leadership that advocates more openness, better governance or services and more representative parliaments.

Yet, how should one respond to decades of subjugation, oppression, marginalisation, imprisonment, brutalisation, torture, rendition, murder and unenlightenment? Perhaps Benjamin Franklin expressed it well that “A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins”.

So is this perhaps a lesson of hope for all Syrians in their long marathon ahead?

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris, and he is a regular Ekklesia contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly, he was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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