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Syria: “Is this how you want international affairs to be conducted now?”

In Being a World Citizen, Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, NGOs, Solidarity, Syria, The Search for Peace, Track II, United Nations, War Crimes, World Law on April 18, 2018 at 8:40 PM

By René Wadlow

In the emergency United Nations (UN) Security Council meeting called by Russia on April 14, 2018, the Russian Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, asked of the representatives of the USA, France and the UK “Is this how you want international affairs to be conducted now?” He was referring to the coordinated air strikes of the USA, France and the UK aimed at targets associated with Syrian chemical weapons programs.

The use of violence as an instrument of world politics is not a new idea as the Ambassador may know if he reflects on Russian history. But Russian history may also remind him that it was a diplomat of the Czar who suggested the first Hague Peace Conference and its efforts to limit the means used in war. The 1925 Geneva Protocol is a direct outgrowth of the “Hague spirit.”

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Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations.

A suspected chemical-weapon attack on April 7, 2018 on rebel-held Douma, a city of some 130,000 near Damascus, had killed at least 50 people and sickened hundreds more. The attack may have been of weaponized chlorine and nerve agents possibly sarin. The Assad government has been accused of using chemical weapons before – charges which the government has denied saying that chemical arms were used by rebel factions such as Jaysh al Islam.

A major issue is that the use of chemical weapons, probably sarin or a sarin-like substance is in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare of which Syria is a party, among the 135 governments which have signed. The attack was also a violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction which came into force in 1997. The Convention created The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Syria signed the Convention in 2013 as part of a compromise decision to have its chemical-weapon stock destroyed.

The use of poison gas strikes deep, partly subconscious, reactions not provoked in the same way as seeing someone shot by a machine gun. The classic Greeks and Romans had a prohibition against the use of poison in war, especially poisoning water wells because everyone needs to drink. Likewise poison gas is abhorred because everyone needs to breath.

There is a real danger that the Geneva Protocol of 1925, one of the oldest norms of humanitarian international law will be undermined and the use of chemical weapons “normalized”. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is already investigating the use of chemical weapons in seven other locations in Syria and new inspectors arrived in Syria on April 13.

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A protest by Syrian revolution activists and supporters in Paris on March 30.

Chemical weapons have been used in armed conflicts in the Middle East before. Although Egypt had signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Egyptian forces used chemical weapons widely in their support of the republican forces in the Yemen Civil War (1962-1967) with very few international outcries. As a result of the lack of any sanctions against Egypt, Syria requested Egyptian technical assistance in developing its own chemical weapons capabilities shortly after 1967 – well before the al-Assad dynasty came to power.

Humanitarian international law is largely based on self-imposed restraints. Humanitarian international law creates an obligation to maintain the protection of all non-combatants caught in the midst of violent conflicts as set out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977. Moreover, there is an urgent need to focus special attention on the plight of children. They are the least responsible for the conflict and yet are most vulnerable. They need special protection. The norms to protect children in armed conflicts are set out clearly in the Additional Protocols which has 25 articles specifically pertaining to children. The norms are also clearly stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally ratified international treaty. The Convention calls for the protection of the child’s right to life, education, health and other fundamental needs. These provisions apply equally in times of armed conflict and in times of peace.

As with the use of weapons prohibited by international treaty: chemical weapons, land mines, cluster munitions, the protection of children must be embodied in local values and practice. The classic Chinese philosopher Mencius, in maintaining that humans were basically good, used the example of a child about to fall into a well who would be saved by anyone regardless of status or education.

The Association of World Citizens (AWC) has called for a UN-led conference on the re-affirmation of humanitarian, international law. There needs to be a world-wide effort on the part of governments and non-governmental organizations to re-affirm humanitarian values and the international treaties which make them governmental obligations.

Limiting the use of chemical weapons or other banned weapons such as land mines and cluster munitions is only part of what is required. There needs to be negotiations in good faith to put an end to the armed conflict. The AWC has called for good-faith negotiations among all the parties from the start of what was at first non-violent demonstrations in March 2011. Neither the Government nor the opposition were willing to set an agenda or a timetable for good-faith negotiations. The Government held out vague promises for reform but without giving details and without open discussion among those concerned. As the fighting has escalated, the possibility of good-faith negotiations has increasingly faded despite efforts by the UN mediators to facilitate such negotiations.

The situation has become increasingly complex as new actors play increasingly active roles. The entry of Turkish forces and their Syrian allies into the city of Afrin after two months of fighting in the area of this largely Kurdish-populated city on the frontier with Turkey. It is impossible to know if this is a limited show-of-force or the first steps of a broader anti-Kurdish policy in northern Syria.

There is a growing awareness that there is a dangerous stalemate and that there is no military “solution”. It is often at this “stalemate” stage of a conflict that parties turn to a negotiated compromise. (1) The dangers of a wider conflict with more States involved are real. Thus the situation requires careful concerted action both on the part of governments and nongovernmental organizations.

Note
1) See Louis Kriesberg and Stuart Thorson (Eds) Yiming, The De-Escalation of International Conflicts (Syracuse University Press, 1991)

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

Syria: From a ceasefire to comprehensive negotiations?

In Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Middle East & North Africa, NGOs, Refugees, Solidarity, Syria, The Search for Peace, Track II, United Nations on February 27, 2018 at 9:16 PM

By René Wadlow

After multiple delays to reach agreement with the Russian ambassador, on February 24 the United Nations (UN) Security Council adopted a resolution for a 30-day ceasefire “without delay” in Syria. The truce would allow for the delivery of emergency aid and the evacuation of the wounded, including the beleaguered Eastern Ghouta, home to some 350,000 people near Damascus. Now, we need to work to have the ceasefire honored.

Eastern Ghouta is near Damascus and has been a contested zone since early in the 2011 uprising. Ghouta is close enough to Damascus so that opposition mortars can be fired on districts in Damascus – close enough also so that rockets and barrel bombs from government helicopters can increasingly fall on the zone. Hospitals have been hit in Ghouta, probably deliberately.

Afrin, the scene of new fighting, is in the Aleppo Governorate. It has a large Kurdish population. The Turkish government suspects all organized Kurdish groups to be “terrorists” or potential terrorists. Moreover, the demands for independence of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in Iraq being linked to a possible similar Kurdish zone in Syria is considered by the Turkish government as an active threat to be countered by force. Thus, for the past 10 days, Turkish troops in the misnamed “Operation Olive Branch” have been attacking Afrin and its surrounding area. As an element in complicated Kurdish politics and alliances, a pro-Syrian government Kurdish militia has joined the battle to defend Afrin.

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The fighting between Turkey and the YPG in and around Afrin has made the headlines lately. (Screenshot)

It is too early to know if the ceasefire will be respected. There have been ceasefires in the past which did not hold. However, a ceasefire is not an end in itself. It is a time which may create a “breathing space” during which there are potentially increased possibilities for negotiations on the end to the armed conflict which began in the Spring of 2011.

Currently, there are two sets of inter-related but separate official negotiations undertaken. The most comprehensive is that of the UN carried out largely in Geneva but also at times in Vienna. The second is sponsored largely by the Russian Federation with some support at different times from Iran and Turkey. There may be less public discussions carried out in the shadows of the official mediations about which little is made public and which probably involves only a number of the actors in the conflict.

Mediation is the action taken by a third party to facilitate two (occasionally more) hostile parties coming together to negotiate. Mediation is not negotiation. Negotiation is the process of bargaining and compromise by which those directly in conflict can reach an agreement. The function of the mediator is to remove the obstacles to negotiation, in part by bringing the conflicting parties together for direct discussions.

The impartial mediator sees no enemies but only the mental and physical suffering of war, as much among “the aggressors” as among the victims. The hatred and suspicions that nourish the conflict makes the conflict increasingly complicated. Part of the mediators’ task is psychological, to lessen the negative emotions so that a slight change of understanding can occur. But this psychological task must be carried on as though one is discussing political and military issues. Mediators must present their efforts in such a way that they will be listened to, avoiding words or ideas that evoke automatically a hostile response.

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Left to right: Kofi Annan, Ban ki-moon and Lakhdar Brahimi. Under Ban as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Annan and Brahimi successively served as UN mediators for Syria, both unsuccessfully. (International Peace Institute)

Mediation is an on-going process with many steps both forward and backward. If skillfully carried out, psychological advances may be made; some tensions may be eased, some misconceptions dispelled, some fixed ideas diminished. For parties in a conflict to seek compromise, there needs to be a certain “atmosphere” – an informed public opinion that will accept the compromise and build better future relations based on an agreement.

The official mediator’s role is not to suggest the constitutional or political nature of the settlement to which the protagonists should arrive. The official mediator can only suggest how constitutional structures might be discussed.

It is chiefly on the issue of constitutional structures that there is a difference between efforts carried out by the UN and the Russian Federation and what can be done by a nongovernmental organization such as the Association of World Citizens (AWC). Non-official mediators must be able to speak to the wide range of protagonists in the Syrian-Iraq conflicts without being seen as supporting one faction or another.

The AWC has been concerned with possible con-federal structures for both Syria and Iraq. The AWC has a long-standing interest in helping to develop appropriate constitutional structures for States facing the possibility of prolonged or intensified armed conflicts. An emphasis is placed on the possibilities of con-federation, autonomy, renewal, and trans-frontier cooperation. The AWC continues the con-federal, trans-frontier tradition of the world citizens Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985) and Alexandre Marc (1904-2000) (1). In the recent past, the Association has proposed con-federal structures to deal with conflicts situations in Mali, Ukraine, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Libya, Sudan and Cyprus.

The AWC has been actively concerned with Kurdistan issues which involves structures of both Iraq and Syria as well as positive cooperation among Kurds living in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. While the AWC does not sponsor Kurdish demands as such, we believe that the Kurdish issues in Syria, Iraq and Turkey merit close attention. Con-federation and autonomy are broad concepts, capable of covering a multitude of visions extending from very limited local initiatives to complete control over everything other than foreign policy. The ways in which the elements and patterns of autonomy are put together require political imagination, far-sighted political leadership, a willingness to compromise, and constant dialogue.

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In September 2017 a majority of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence. Who knows what lies ahead for a historically stateless Kurdish people now? (C) Levi Clancy

There are legitimate fears among some in Syria and also in Iraq that consideration of con-federal structures opens the door to having Syria and Iraq broken into separate zones of influence, dependent on outside powers – the USA, Russia, Iran, Turkey. Thus, we need to stress that autonomy does not mean division. There is also a need to stress trans-frontier cooperation among groups.

Some sectors demanding greater recognition are not primarily geographically based. The Sunni-Shi’a divisions cut across zones though there are zones which have a majority of one particular religious tradition. Religion is not the only dividing factor: Kurd, Turkmen can be considered ethnic factors.

Comprehensive negotiations on the future of Syria and Iraq within the context of the wider Middle East are difficult to organize. It is not sure that the ceasefire in Syria will hold long enough to create an atmosphere leading to serious official negotiations. For those of us in the nongovernmental field, we must use every opportunity to promote a broader, more cooperative framework to consider the challenges and to facilitate serious discussions.

Note:

1) See Christian Roy, Alexandre Marc et la Jeune Europe (Presse de l’Europe, 1998); J. Laubert de Boyle, Les non-conformistes des années 30 (Seuil, 1969); Michel Winock, Esprit. Des intellectuels dans la cité. 1930-1950 (Seuil 1996)

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

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