Where are the signs of hope in Syria?

By Harry Hagopian
3 May 2011

This is a substantial revision and addition to an early piece, 'A sprint or a marathon in Syria?', published on 29 April 2011 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14658).

It has become clear that the series of ‘Arab Spring’ awakenings that erupted in the Middle East and North Africa region in December 2010 have now also reached Syria in earnest. So after six woeful weeks of unrest and violence which we have somewhat 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?

Beginning with the facts on the ground, different human rights’ sources, the likes of Sawasiyeh claim that well over 500 people have so far been killed nationwide, with far higher numbers of casualties and with hundreds more having been taken into custody or simply disappearing - including well-known intellectuals and activists. There is also an electricity blackout in parts of Syria (which means that mobile phones or cameras cannot be recharged easily too) 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 Mechanised Division in the centre of the southern town of Dera’a.

The UK, alongside other EU partners, is still toiling over a UN statement that would condemn Syrian heavy-handed violence against its citizens. But it is proving somewhat difficult to achieve consensus - particularly in the face of Russian vocal opposition. However, this statement would constitute an important step in showing that this foremost international body is still politically proactive in a post-Libya context.

Equally importantly, the UN Security Council remains the only organ that could refer any perpetrator(s) of crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague when the country in question is not a signatory of the Statute of Rome - such as in the case of 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 admissibility of the photographs coming out of Syria as evidence at the ICC. Unlike UK domestic courts where we lawyers cannot admit such photographs, they are admissible in the ICC according to its Rules of Evidence. It is also increasingly clear that 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.

A relevant question here is to determine what party / parties will be referred to the ICC if we ever get there? Much as many European leaders doubt that President Bashar el-Assad is directly choreographing, let alone condoning all the violent events unfolding across parts of Syria, and much as there is strong speculation that his younger brother, uncle and brother-in-law are in fact directing the attrition by the largely Alawite generals and the six security forces in the country, it remains manifest that the president ultimately bears command and therefore legal responsibility for all crimes.

But the ICC issue aside, given it is both a slow process and a long-term procedure, other steps are already being adopted by the West. A few days ago, for instance, the UN Human Rights Council condemned the violence in Syria in a US-led resolution endorsed by 26 votes to nine against and with seven abstentions. Earlier, US President Barack Obama had signed an Executive Order imposing sanctions on Syrian President Bashar el-Assad’s brother and cousin along with a number of key security officers, but not on the president himself, perhaps to keep the door open and tacitly nudge him to change course.

Moreover, the EU political and security committee is also discussing further punitive measures, with strong support for sanctions from the German government and there are noises at the International Atomic Energy Agency about referring Syria to the UN Security Council for building a secret nuclear reactor. When taken together, it looks the US and its EU allies appreciate the place Syria - Um al Ourouba - holds in peoples’ hearts and are ramping up the pressure slowly.

But in the midst of such political manoeuvres, let us also recall that Syria is neither Libya nor Tunisia: it is much bigger, with a population of roughly 22 million, and a key political player in the region with enormous strategic concern for the West due to its geographical, historical and political weight. Syria is 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. In a sense, in a region fraught with so many tectonic fault-lines, the West is also endeavouring to maintain stability.

Consequently, I would argue that there is presently no likelihood of any UNSC Resolutions for a no-fly zone or other stringent military sanctions. After all, whilst the UN and the Western powers could at least nail their mast to a Transitional National Council in Libya with its moot-point legitimacy, the Syrian ‘opposition’ only consists of a National Initiative for Change that is an uncoordinated admixture of groups challenging autocracy and long-standing oppressiveness.

Besides, and unlike Libya, the Arab League or its constituent countries - including the likes of Qatar that has been at the forefront of acting against Colonel Qadhafi’s regime - would be loath to rock further the Syrian establishment. And unlike Libya also, there have been no key defections from the political arena (as was the case with the Libyan ambassador at the UN) and so the scope for action becomes rather narrower and much slower at this stage.

Although Syria witnessed some freedoms in the past decade under President Bashar el-Assad’s young presidency, the fact remains that there is today once more 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 popular demands for political legitimacy. But as the violence mounts up, a question that is becoming increasingly more audible - and less avoidable - is whether it could still be said that the president is someone whose reformist tendencies are being clamped by an inner clan or whether he is simply his father's son - in other words, an uncompromising leader who play-acts the reformist as a clever sop to the West. Besides, many pundits now also wonder whether the president is being helped out by his London-raised Syrian wife, Mrs Asma el-Assad, to project the image of a Westernised leader that could reassure the West with a sense of familiarity.

So if popular uprisings are indeed occurring with such frequent intensity, who would be its leaders? One school of thought suggests that the violence is largely driven by Salafi jihadist armed groups who are intuitively counter-modernist and who eschew politics for the sake of creating a Muslim caliphate. I would suggest that those groups are probably playing one significant role in the challenge being mounted against President Bashar el-Assad but I also doubt they alone will be able to shift the centre of gravity in this standoff. A second group could be those Syrians who are exiled and alienated from the Ba’ath Party structures and are largely backing the insurgency from abroad through funding and communication in an effort to get rid of the regime. But I believe that a major chunk of the challenge to the regime comes from ordinary Syrian men and women who have been squashed for many decades under the heavy weight of autocracy, who are being shot at by the security forces or harried by thuggish elements and who are equally fed up with an inept bureaucracy, a heedless government and the heavy-handedness of those who have lorded it over ordinary, disempowered or impecunious citizens.

What about the future? Will Turkey play a key role in defusing the situation? Not really: first of all, it has to cope with the memory of suspicions dating back to the Arab Revolt of 1916 let alone its own multiple agendas that focus not only on ascendant neo-Ottoman designs but also on a more robust political role in the MENA region. Turkey is also keen to secure its booming commercial ties and fend off any disintegration of Syria that would result in a more self-confident and assertive Kurdish population in northern Syria (as in Qamishli where there have been reported uprisings and riots too).

Will the EU influence current events given that 25 per cent of Syrian trade is with Europe, and might we witness rigorous US sanctions over and above some diplomatic measures? I doubt the EU or the US have the stomach for it and I am not too sure they will make too much difference anyway. None of us are soothsayers, 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. One tipping point could come if cracks in loyalty appear within the conscript army were it to disobey orders. This is why it might be helpful to watch peripheral 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, any continuity or change in Syria is bound to affect the whole region - something Libya, Tunisia or even Bahrain and Yemen cannot do, and hence Western outrage at the excesses perpetrated ostensibly by the regime is tempered by deep doses of caution and realpolitik - but one of the countries that will be impacted one way or another by any major shifts in Syria remains Lebanon. The link between those two countries is so critical that half the Lebanese people would love to see the very end of any Syrian influence in the country, whilst the other half spends its time talking up such significance for their country. But whichever side events tilt, the ripples will be felt in this tiny country and - ominously - echoed across its various armed militias. This is perhaps one reason why the newly-elected Maronite Patriarch, Mar Bechara Boutros at Ra’i, intimated following his conversations with four Christian leaders at Bkerke a fortnight ago 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 confrontation and lost out, whilst the Yemeni president tried bullets and is now craftily 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 1982 and opt instead for a responsible leadership that advocates more openness, better governance, less corrupt services and more representative parliaments.

Besides, since the regime constantly remonstrates that there are huge disparities between the reality in the country and the way satellite channels or foreign journalists report events, I plead anew with President Assad to open up the country so the foreign media could come in to cover those events truthfully. Why is he reluctant to do so? Is it because it goes against the ideological grain of the regime or is it because there are secrets that are best kept hidden from prying eyes? One irony is that an ostracised Colonel Gaddafi allows journalists in Tripoli whilst President Assad disallows them in Damascus!

Yet, no matter which way the winds blow in the weeks ahead, it is quite clear that the majority of Syrians desperately seek reform but they also fear sectarianism and foreign intervention. So how should one respond to decades of subjugation, oppression, marginalisation, imprisonment, brutalisation, torture, rendition, murder and unenlightenment? Will it be a top-down approach à l’iranienne or will the US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin impress Syrian power-brokers with his dictum 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”?

Could we perhaps discern any signs of hope for all Syrians in this collective struggle?

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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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