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Airstrikes Alone Won’t Stop Assad – Instead, Let’s Stop Failing Syria’s Civil Society

In Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Democracy, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, NGOs, Solidarity, Syria, The Search for Peace, Track II, United Nations on April 21, 2018 at 7:32 PM

By Bernard J. Henry

In April 2017 and once again earlier this month, United States (U. S.) President Donald J. Trump brought into the Syrian conflict something that had never been in it before, upsetting even his own supporters who had bought a very different speech from him as a presidential candidate back home in America. Having campaigned for “dialogue” with the Russian Federation and urged support for the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, against the terrorist threat as posed by the Islamic State (IS), Trump ended up striking the very Assad regime he had called on the world to stand by.

Until the first U. S. strike took place on April 6, 2017, the only strikes that had taken place in the region had been against the IS, albeit with little success in bringing down the terrorist organization – a job that the Iraqi army and Syria’s own Kurds from the northern entity of Rojava ended up doing instead. But now, a seemingly invulnerable Assad was in danger too.

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Throughout the world, those who had remained silent as the Syrian President was slaughtering his own people started blasting Trump as a global thug, just for the non-lethal strikes the U. S. had conducted on chemical weapons research sites in Syria. However questionable Trump’s foreign policy may be in other respects, what in the world was it that made him less defensible than a Bashar al-Assad who has spent the last seven years inflicting unspeakable suffering to his own people?

Some were led by primary anti-imperialist thoughts, leading them to view Assad as a hero for standing up to the USA; others were simply acting on knee-jerk islamophobia, confusing Islam with fundamentalism and unduly hailing Assad as a secular progressive. The same kind of confusion that turned haters of fascism into Hitler supporters against communism.

Yet misguided pacifism should never make us forget that a handful of airstrikes, largely symbolical and non-impact in mere military terms, will never provide the basis for a long-term policy to resolve an armed conflict that has claimed so many lives and driven scores of people away from their homes.

What’s New in Syria? Civil Society

Punishing the regime with an airstrike for committing a chemical attack was hardly a departure from what had taken place so far. For seven years, a brutal, obsessively repressive Syrian government has locked the Middle East and, beyond that, the entire world in a paradigm of realism – the theory of international relations that dictates that military power is the one thing guiding the walk of life between nations.

A major shift has been made from the liberal theory of international relations, a theory under which international rules and institutions are paramount to the functioning of the international community – such as the United Nations (UN) and its Security Council, recklessly hijacked by Russia and China through the two nations’ systematic use of the veto to block any action against the Syrian tyranny.

Much more than being a solution, the airstrikes are thus a problem – just as much as Assad’s conduct, never really opposed by the international community, only “deplored” in international forums, is the original problem. Both, though, are but symptoms of the real disease.

Protesters carry opposition flags and chant slogans during an anti-government protest in the rebel-held town of Dael

As a great many commentators have observed, including Syrian dissident Yassin Al Haj Saleh in his 2016 book La Question Syrienne (1), throughout the reign of the Assad dynasty, the people of Syria have been set aside. Geopolitics alone has been behind the wheel, not least through the long-running occupation of the Syrian plateau of Golan by Israel and Syria’s hold on Lebanon which lasted from the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s to 2005 and the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt which were first to rise against their tyrants during the Arab Spring of 2011, and more like Libya under Colonel Gaddafi, until then, Syria did not have a full-fledged civil society. Nongovernmental organizations there would be neutral charities operating under the auspices of the First Lady, Asma al-Assad. Any other private sector organizations, such as trade unions, are basically spawns of, or directly controlled by, the ruling Ba’ath Party. Founding an organization without seeking state sanction meant assured prosecution and, most of the time, imprisonment. The very first instance was the Declaration of Damascus in 2004, a broad-tent platform which brought together most components of the Syrian opposition, from the Communists to the Islamists. Most of its founders and members were jailed by the authorities, and then forced to flee the country after their release.

Along with literature, as more books by Syrians have been published since 2011 than under the whole Assad dictatorship “undisturbed”, the revolution unleashed a new power among the Syrian people – civil society. Since the early days of the revolution, independent Syrian groups have appeared at a steady pace throughout the world, ranging from think tanks to relief organizations, signaling that the Syrian people would no longer keep their thoughts and hopes to themselves, no matter how harsh repression back home may be.

Repression, both by the Assad regime and, from 2014 to 2017, the then “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham”, a formerly minor jihadi group which had grown to outpower even the Iraqi army and prey on, much more than the Syrian military, the Free Syrian Army of the Syrian revolution. Reared under the Assad dictatorship’s infamous prison regime, IS leaders and members would not hear one word too many in that “caliphate” they had created along the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria.

A Syrian civil society that grew like a mushroom town has taken the entire world, and the factions to the Syrian conflict itself, by surprise. But has it been able to really play a role in shaping Syria’s future?

The UN Civil Society Support Room – Failure at the Highest Level?

Arguably, Syrian civil society groups have been no major players in the battle of wills between those nations defending the Assad regime and those confronting it – albeit in a lukewarm, versatile manner, like France since Emmanuel Macron became President.

One man who, for all his political failures, cannot be blamed for not trying is Staffan de Mistura, the Italian-Swedish diplomat who has been since 2014 the United Nations (UN) and Arab League Envoy for Syria. In January 2016, de Mistura created a Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) meant as a tool for the participation of civil society groups in the Geneva rounds of peace talks over Syria, composed of groups invited to take part on a rotating basis. Funded by the foreign ministries of Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as the European Union, the CSSR is managed jointly by Swisspeace and the Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution (NOREF).

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Staffan de Mistura

Located near de Mistura’s own office at the Palais des Nations, the CSSR mainly reflects his inventor’s belief that there is no military solution to the armed conflict, only a negotiated, diplomatic outcome. Accordingly, the Special Envoy has cared to bring together groups from both the new Syrian civil society, most of them based abroad, and the regime’s own supporters within Syria proper.

While having proved an outstanding achievement in terms of Track II diplomacy, possibly offering a framework to be followed in other instances of civil unrest, the CSSR also has its shortcomings, some of which have even turned out to call into question the credibility and viability of the mechanism itself. As researchers Sara Hellmüller and Marie-Joëlle Zahar note in a report published by the International Peace Institute (2) – Hellmüller also being on the CSSR management team – a seemingly unsolvable lack of “tangible outcomes”, as they put it, means three life-threatening challenges for the CSSR.

First, as time goes by and nothing changes, participating groups are led to doubt the usefulness of their presence, when not questioned by their own constituents about it. Second, although de Mistura has constantly undertaken to maintain a “balance” within the CSSR, inviting groups from both the revolutionary and pro-regime civil societies, those revolutionary organizations based outside Syria often have issues with visas from the host governments or “personal security concerns” (3). Third, besides the successful diplomatic exercise and symbolical achievement of bringing civil society together, participating groups seldom agree on what issues should be dealt with, whether everyday concerns or longer-term prospects for Syria, and even when they do, opportunities to interact with de Mistura’s own office often turn out to offer little interest, if any at all.

Similarly, a Women’s Advisory Board created simultaneously with the CSSR has drawn suspicion from revolutionary groups for including ranking female supporters of the Assad regime, viewed as mere mouthpieces for the very government whose harsh repression of dissent has sparked the war.

In both committees, one problem makes it a lot harder for revolutionary groups based within Syria: Some group representatives who managed to travel to Geneva learned upon arrival, or while taking part in meetings, that their home area had been bombed or otherwise attacked by regime forces, killing or injuring some of their loved ones there.

Faced with as many difficulties, some groups invited to join the CSSR ended up throwing in the towel. On November 28, 2017, ten Syrian organizations led by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SN4HR), all invited on November 21 to join the CSSR on November 28-30, plainly rejected de Mistura’s invitation. The ten groups, among them the Violations Documentation Center founded by lawyer Razan Zaitouneh who was abducted in 2013 and has been unheard of since, blamed de Mistura for not bringing their concerns to the UN Security Council as they expected him to, criticized an overly loose and vague meeting agenda, blasted the overly short time between the invitation’s issuance and the actual meeting which left no time for prior preparation, and basically sent off the inviting staff for being unable to answer specific questions due to lack of knowledge on the issue. (4)

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and at the end stands the CSSR as a good idea turned into an honorable failure.

The Key to a Viable Future in Syria

There lies the danger – depriving Syria of a viable, free civil society is the biggest threat that one might impose on the already devastated country, with little prospects of rebuilding as long as the Assad regime will be in place, ruling over a vanquished people but itself reduced to a mere pawn of its Iranian and Russian allies.

Isolated series of airstrikes cannot bring an end to the war, let alone provide a political agenda for a free, peaceful Syria. Even the Syrian revolution does not want outside intervention; what it wants is the means and ability to fight it out with the Assad dictatorship. Only two kinds of armed forces in Syria have resorted to specially-recruited foreign fighters thus far: groups with religious claims, not only jihadi groups but also Christian armed groups, and the Marxist-inspired northwestern Kurdish entity of Rojava. Free Syrians do not want a Third Gulf War between the West and a Mideast country, but a chance to oust Assad on their own, as nearly happened in 2012 and 2015, and build a better future for themselves in their own land. If anybody can enable them to do so, civil society can.

Then what can and should be done? In their protest to Staffan de Mistura, SN4HR and the nine other organizations listed five recommendations, logically inspired by the shortcomings they had cited to turn down de Mistura’s invitation:

“1. Prior involvement of civil society organizations in identifying the topics for the meeting in consultation with the office of the special envoy.

2. The contribution of the organizations in developing frameworks and discussion points for the meeting.

3. The assignment of people who are specialized in the topic of meeting in the process of sending invitations and communication with the Syrian organizations.

4. The full inclusion of the results of the Civil Society Support Room meetings in the periodic briefings of the Special Envoy to the Security Council.

5. Concluding the work of the Civil Society Support Room with a press conference that communicates to the Syrians and the world the results of the Civil Society Support Room meeting.”

These principles could be wisely extended to any forum, whether national, regional or international, where Syrian civil society groups ever get a chance to speak or otherwise express their views. But, since “Charity begins at home”, strengthening Syrian civil society must happen first and foremost in Syria proper, however unrealistic that might seem in view of the Assad regime’s increasingly merciless repression of resistance.

Ahmad Moutie Darkazanli, a longtime activist against the Assad dynasty who has lived in, and campaigned from, France for a number of years, does not say otherwise. “In Syria, civil society was totally controlled by the Mukhabarat, the state intelligence agency. All associations, trade unions, and other civil society groups came under constant scrutiny. There was never a real public debate. True free expression from civil society within Syria came started only in mid-2012, and as more and more areas were liberated from state control in 2013, it grew even stronger. Security was the main concern for these groups.”

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Ahmad Moutie Darkazanli

Thus, says Darkazanli, first things first. “What Syrian civil society needs is better funding, which makes it possible to develop more viable and reliable agendas and to better train activists within the various groups. Ultimately, an efficient mechanism of control and financial traceability are needed, too.”

But, as Darkazanli himself points out and the CSSR’s saddest records show, no civil society can hope to properly function when heavy shelling ruins all its efforts and realizations. So, concludes Darkazanli, “As a prerequisite, there must be a secured territory, where people can feel safe and accordingly build and serve the community free from fear!”

Airstrikes may bring some deterrent, but they can never replace a body of civil society created by a people who were, after almost fifty years of dynastic tyranny, finally learning to be free. Looking closer at the way that Donald J. Trump and Emmanuel Macron treat their own civil societies at home, neither of them is truly qualified to teach any lessons to a foreign country, however tyrannical its government might be. Then, “exporting democracy” through armed intervention does not have an impressive record in neighboring Iraq, or in Libya where chaos prevails with no end in sight.

As a people erased from existence by their government for nearly half a century, Syrians have a willingness to act for a different, better future. Despite strategic differences, sometimes more than that, between two or more of these groups, they have created a civil society that may be in exile but is up and running. All they need is true support and empowerment to provide opportunities for a better future, a prospect that truly scares the Assad dynasty a lot more than all the airstrikes that the armed forces of the three Western Permanent Members of the UN Security Council can carry out will ever do.

(1) Yassin al Haj Saleh, La Question syrienneActes Sud, 2016.

(2) Sara Hellmüller and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, Against the Odds: Civil Society in the Intra-Syrian Talks, International Peace Institute, March 2018.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Statement by Syrian human rights organizations on the invitation to the Civil Society Support Room in Geneva, November 28, 2017, Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Bernard J. Henry is the External Relations Officer of the Association of World Citizens.

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