Syria: almost everything, except good news

Pablo Aguiar
International Catalan Institute for Peace
Pablo Aguiar

Pablo Aguiar

The situation in Syria is unsustainable. This would be an initial impression after reading the newspapers in recent weeks. But the truth is that the news we are hearing about the country has been worrying for some time now (the country's state of emergency has been in force for nearly 50 years) and particularly worrying since March of last year. Syria, another country where the so-called Arab Spring took place in 2011, was the site of protests that were immediately labelled by the government of Bashar al-Assad as part of an 'armed insurrection led by religious extremists'. Pacific groups demanding democratisation in the wake of violence brought against them have begun forming an opposition that in some cases has become a violent force, leading to a situation where there is a civil-war-like confrontation.

Syria is a country which for 50 years has had an authoritarian system and a centralised bureaucratic regime that integrates the security forces. The entire regime is directly controlled by the president and his inner circle. Any kind of opposition or internal discrepancy has been squashed, giving the dictator an imprecise view of reality, which has been conducive to bad decisions.

From an international standpoint, management of the crisis has between slow and sterile. Last April, Xavier Pons reviewed the actions taken to date by the United Nations. As noted by Pons, the United Nations is neither more nor less than the will of its member states, particularly of those with more power and, specifically, those who have veto power within the Security Council. We thus find ourselves with a European Union paralysed by its internal economic problems and a United States that does not cease to keep an eye on its upcoming presidential elections in November. However above all Russia and China, who are doing what they can to limit actions against Syria. The reasons given are varied: the classic argument of not interfering in internal affairs or the excuse of labelling the opposition as extremist terrorist. Moreover, the recent history of Libya is in no way positive. The Security Council passed a resolution that many of its members interpreted differently and whose execution was heavily criticised, understandably so, precisely by Russia and China. Lastly, we must not forget that both have been the most important suppliers of arms to Bashar al-Assad, with Russia having at times sold over 90% of the weaponry bought by the country.

Regarding civil society, the news from Syria in recent days is frightening. Genuine massacres of civilians are taking place: on 25 May, 108 dead in Al-Haula, 49 of whom were children; on 6 June, 78 more victims in Madrat al-Qubair… These actions have remained authorless, with neither side stepping up to claim them as their own, but there are elements pointing to the involvement of government forces or the forces of the shabbiha militia, which is close to the al-Assad regime. What is clear is that since the protests began, there have been a high number of deaths, a number which has been increasing in recent months. The opacity of the regime makes it impossible to make accurate estimates, but the truth is somewhere between the 6,000 admitted by official sources and the over 14,000 proclaimed by opposition sources.

Although delayed, the latest diplomatic moves seem to be headed in the right direction: strong pressure on the regime, recognition of the Syrian National Council, and threats that continued breaching of the plan proposed by Kofi Annan may lead to more coercive actions. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis. A political regime that revolves so heavily around the dictator's inner circle is easily set on the all or nothing solution. And in this scenario, it is unlikely that those holding power will agree to surrender without offering any resistance. The situation is even more complicated if we add the country's ethnic diversity, with a Sunni majority (75%), and the influence of regional powers (Saudi Arabia and Iran) on each of the opposing sides. Unfortunately, the current situation presages a generalisation of the violence. For this not to happen, the countries with the most leverage must put pressure on Russia and China, the real bastions outside the Syrian government, so that they give up their unconditional support to the regime.

Scenarios like these can make us believe there is nothing we can do. However, there are actions to be undertaken, relating to both the situation and to the structure. Regarding the former, it is difficult to imagine that social pressure will be a determining factor in international policy, since decisions are taken by states and, more specifically, the individuals representing states. The fact is that these decision makers base their decisions on a rational calculation of the costs and benefits of their actions. Therefore, without getting into ethical arguments, if the decision (or inaction when deciding) is costly in terms of social pressure, it is reasonable to think that those who must make the decision will bear it in mind. Thus, any support or pressure for a peaceful solution to the crisis plays its part, and along these lines, new forms of activism based on the use of new technology (Change, Avaaz...) can be useful.

With respect to actions of a more structural nature, there is probably a unique feature common to all wars in the world: a country, or group of countries, has made considerable gains by selling arms to one or to the various opposing sides. Hopefully the future treaty on arms trade discussed in the current issue of the magazine Peace in Progress will make it possible to regulate arms transfers in order to prevent countries in armed conflict or countries that violate human rights from receiving arms. In fact, these countries will likely be the stage of the next war to be endured by the world.