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Syria: What to do if traditional international alternatives are failing?

It might be now or never to transform the conflict in Syria via diplomatic efforts. Two weeks ago a ceasefire between government troops and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) went into force. This is the first step of the peace plan mediated by Kofi Annan and backed by the United Nations and the Arab League. To complement the ceasefire, the UN Security Council agreed to an international supervision delegation, to see whether the parties uphold the ceasefire. However, reports on bombing, gunfire and attacks are still coming in, which leads to skeptic and pessimistic opinions on the progress of the six-point peace plan. Human suffering continues in Syria. If the peace plan does fail, what then? This short paper will first outline the origins and fragility of the peace plan. Then it weights the diplomatic and military alternatives against each other. Finally, the paper will give an alternative for the international community to act, although it requires an attitude change of that same international community.

It might be now or never to transform the conflict in Syria via diplomatic efforts. Two weeks ago a ceasefire between government troops and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) went into force. This is the first step of the peace plan mediated by Kofi Annan and backed by the United Nations and the Arab League. To complement the ceasefire, the UN Security Council agreed to an international supervision delegation, to see whether the parties uphold the ceasefire. However, reports on bombing, gunfire and attacks are still coming in, which leads to skeptic and pessimistic opinions on the progress of the six-point peace plan. Human suffering continues in Syria. If the peace plan does fail, what then? This short paper will first outline the origins and fragility of the peace plan. Then it weights the diplomatic and military alternatives against each other. Finally, the paper will give an alternative for the international community to act, although it requires an attitude change of that same international community.

The six-point peace plan, drafted and negotiated by special mediator Kofi Annan, was the result of the Russian and Chinese veto within the UN Security Council, blocking resolutions condemning the violence against civilians in Syria. Russia has a clear interest in Syria; it is an important ally in the region and hosts part of the Russian fleet. The possible failure of the peace plan would particular  damage Russia’s image, as it indicates that the country cannot control its ally in the Middle East. The fact that Russia stressed dialogue instead of sanctions to transform the conflict would be seen as a vain attempt. If the peace plan fails, the question is what Russia’s next steps would be. Will it re-join the United States and Western Europe, leading to an UN Security Council Resolution condemning the violence in Syria or will it continue to work on a separate alternative for Syria?

Failure of the peace plan is, unfortunately, still a very likely scenario. First of all, the willingness of the Syrian government to adhere to the ceasefire is very ambiguous given the persistent presence of the Syrian army in cities, the continued violence against rebels and the constantly renewed conditions to agree with the ceasefire. In addition, it is unclear whether the central command of the Free Syrian Army, the armed rebels in Syria, is strong enough to impose the ceasefire on their members and soldiers. The FSA does not have a strong central command, limiting its influence on the different segments of the group. The many splintered armed rebel groups not connected to the FSA also threaten the ceasefire, as they are not bound to it and might continue attacking the government forces.

Secondly, both the armed rebels as well as the Syrian army do not have any interest in a ceasefire. The Syrian government is convinced that force is the only way to crack the uprising. A ceasefire, and subsequent dialogue, is in their eyes not efficient to ensure the survival of the government. Up till now, the Syrian troops have not suffered significantly from the violence. In addition, the Syrian government knows that the international community cannot unify its stance about the conflict and that military intervention is still far away. In this sense the Syrian government is not punished for keeping on shooting. The rebels also have an interest in continued violence. Although a ceasefire

would give them time to recover and regroup, continued violence would leave the conflict on the international agenda and calls for military intervention would even sound louder. Subsequent international actions against the Assad regime would help the rebels in their fight. Furthermore, their core goal is to end the Assad government and a diplomatic solution does not necessarily include the removal of the Assad regime.

Despite the dark prospects for a diplomatic solution, it is still the best way to transform the current violent stage of the conflict. First of all, non-violent solutions are coherent with the non-violent beginning of the uprising in Syria. It started with demonstrations, not with guns. The militarization of the uprising has resulted in much negative feelings among the Syrians towards the opposition. Secondly, it is also the complexity of the conflict that asks for diplomatic efforts. Thirdly, since the opposition within and outside Syria is far from unified, diplomatic efforts appears to be the best alternative. The three Syrian opposition organizations, the FSA, the Syrian National Council and National Coordination Committee, also experience great internal differences; they have differing perceptions on strategy, stance towards international interference and the outcome of the conflict. Sectarian, tribal and religious elements also play a part in these differences. Military intervention with such a fragmented opposition can only lead to more harm, as the already sensitive sectarian, tribal and religious differences can become even more politicized. International diplomatic efforts should consolidate the opposition and give the opportunity to formulate a common opinion and strategy.

Looking at the regional context of the conflict, diplomatic solutions are more welcomed than military intervention. The Middle East is a very unstable region where Syria has a decisive role. Any military intervention, either by Western countries or neighboring Arab countries, is to promote their own regional political agendas, and never truly humanitarian. Western Europe and the United States have an interest to alter the hostile attitude of Syria towards Israel. In addition, neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the forefront, have a regional hegemonic agenda, where Syria and Iran, always have been the rival countries. Any intervention also leaves Iran’s response to one’s imagination. The hidden agendas will make any intervention result in an even more explosive regional situation.

If despite the complex reality of the Syrian conflict and regional strategic position countries do decide to intervene it is worth to explore the grounds of a possible legitimate international intervention. The UN charter clearly states that countries may only act out of self-defense and, under chapter 7 of its charter, take steps against “threats to peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression”[1]  that threaten international peace and security. In the case of Libya, the international community intervened on the grounds of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). R2P has become an international intervention justification, developed since 2000 and adopted by the General Assembly as guideline in 2005. There is still debate whether it should be recognized as international law. R2P holds that:

“1. The State carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

2. The international community has a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility.

3. The international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be

prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.”[2]

A possible international intervention in Syria could be justified by point three, where the international community should use force if a state fails to protect its populations against genocide, war crimes, crimes of humanity and ethnic cleansing. Five accompanying principles should be considered before force can be used. Gareth Evans, one of the founding fathers of R2P, evaluated these principles in light of the Syrian conflict, and concluded that military intervention in Syria is not possible in accordance with R2P principles.[3] His reasoning is as follows: the first criteria – is the threat to civilians of such a scale and type that it requires force – and the third – has any non-military option been explored and unlikely to succeed – are met in case the peace plan fails . However, the second principle, that the intervention should be based on humanitarian grounds, is not met, considering the accompanying “hidden” political agendas. The forth criteria requires proportional means; can minimalist intervention and force meet the threat in question? In the case of Syria, the minimum required is already the maximum needed; full force is mandatory to even establish safe zones, no fly zones and buffer zones.

The fifth and last principle of R2P is the most important obstacle for military intervention. It asks whether intervention would do more harm than good. This principle should be guiding in all possible interventions in Syria, either military of nature or with international sanctions. Reflecting on the above discussed points, the fragmented Syrian opposition, the explosive regional setting and the fact that there is still a significant group of Syrians opposing military intervention, military intervention would probably do more harm than good. Furthermore, a plan for after the intervention is still lacking.

As an alternative to military action, the Free Syrian Army lobbied for sending arms to the rebels. Considering the principle “does it more harm than good” this alternative cannot be an option. Given the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition and within Syria itself, weapons can eventually be turned on each other. One also has to question the flow of weapons once the conflict is over. Furthermore, distributing weapons has the potential to promote militarization of the conflict and it undermines the peace plan of Kofi Annan which requests an immediate ceasefire. The non-violent beginnings of the uprising would be even further undermined. The Saudi and Qatari governments are in favor of arming the rebels. If they do provide weapons, given their Sunni background, the uprising and battle can develop a sectarian identity, intensifying community divides and can lead to even more human suffering.

This overview tries to show that every international alternative for transforming the Syrian conflict can either fail due to a lack of commitment, or will do more harm and leads to more human suffering than good. Is there really no solution? No. There are measures the international community can take, but they must step out of the all-or-nothing discourse and consider micro level alternatives.

The best alternative is to return to the root and beginning of the uprising. It started with non-violent demonstrations, spreading all over the country, against the government. The size of these demonstrations became larger over time, but the militarization of the conflict has scared many demonstrators. The middle-class, the power base of Bashar Assad, still has not made up its mind to either join the uprising or to stay true to the President. The militarization of the conflict has scared the middle class even more, leading it away from the uprising. Nonviolent, civil disobedience can encourage this group to back the opposition, leaving Bashar Assad standing alone. With the middle-class support for Assad gone, the conflict context changes and provides positive conditions for overall non-violent conflict transformation. The international community can support the local civic organizations in their non-violent opposition and civil disobedience acts. This asks for a new approach of the international community and requires a long-term perspective and commitment. The process might be slow, but at least it does no harm.



[2] http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/about-rtop/learn-about-rtop

[3] http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/saving-the-syrians

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