Turmoil in Syria: failed “Arab spring” or sectarian nightmare?

Although inspired by the movements of the Arab spring, the protests in Syria have degenerated into increasingly  violent and militarised conflict with sectarian overtones that threaten the rights of Syrians at large. The means employed in the resolution of the crisis will determine the outcome Yakin Ertürk tells Deniz Kandiyoti

Yakin Erturk
8 May 2012


Deniz Kandiyoti : Among the various popular uprisings of the “Arab spring” Syria stands out as a country where a stalemate was reached on the question of regime change and we are witnessing ongoing bitter clashes between government and opposition forces. How do you evaluate this situation?

Yakin Ertürk : There is no doubt that opposition forces in Syria were inspired by the Arab spring and that many underlying grievances were brought out into the open. We must remember, however, that there is a history to these upheavals and that the attack on the city of Hama by the government forces in 1982 occasioned an alleged 20.000 victims as civilian casualties. The international climate then was very different and these atrocities elicited no engagement but were seen as the prerogative of a sovereign state protecting itself against internal dissent. So, there are good reasons for people in Syria to take to the streets.

Although the Assad regime is one among many repressive regimes in the region some distinctions need to be made.

First, this was a regime that brought relative stability to the country after series of coups in the post independence period. It accorded personal security and a right of existence to the religiously and ethnically plural fabric of society- but the price was repression. The totalitarian and consolidated power of the single party (Baath party) regime provided cover for the right to exist in exchange for political allegiance and quiescence (although the context is different, it is somewhat like what I had observed in  south-eastern Turkey in the 1970’s, where the Syriacs (Süryani’s) co-existed in predominantly Kurdish villages by giving the Kurds political support in exchange for “protection” of their economic interests. Today there is practically no Syriacs left in these villages). Nonetheless, this was hardly a rosy picture. The mere hint of opposition was often met with repression and prosecution.  Among the dissidents the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned for nearly 50 years. The terms of engagement even for the regime’s less “threatening” elements such as the Christian minority were also uneasy. The proportion of the Christians, which is around 10% today, is said to have experienced a steady decline over the past 40 years.

Secondly, in the past two decades Syria was the only remaining Arab country with a clear stand with respect to  foreign interests in the region. It maintained its long term resistance to the occupation of Palestine and opposed the invasion of Iraq. Syria provided a safe haven for the Palestinian refugees and, more recently, the Iraqi refugees. These among other factors have earned Syria the reputation of being a secular, socialist, anti-imperialist bastion in the region. Of course times have changed and this legacy -even if true- cannot excuse or mask the crimes the state has committed against its people.

Nonetheless, this discourse of stability and assumed secularism -along with the fear caused by the uncertainty of what may replace the regime- continues to inform many supporters of the Syrian government inside and outside the country. Therefore, it is not surprising that unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the majority of Syrians did not rise against the regime when the unrests began a year ago. Among the opposition the Syrian National Council (SNC) has not emerged as a credible alternative to the regime. Within its ranks the Muslim Brotherhood stands out as a strong contender. The SNC is highly fragmented, their mood is not conciliatory and they have not been able to offer a vision of Syria that is convincing and reassuring to the silent majority. The army has also remained relatively intact; most of those who defected are young conscripts with some high ranking members of the officer corps. The Free Syrian Army is more of an identity than a real organized entity with a clear chain  of command. Its leadership, Colonel Riyadh Asaad, is in a defector’s camp in Hatay, with only a mobile phone and the internet as a communication device with the many localized opposition armed groups on the ground. 

DK: The UN Human Rights Council established an Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria and you were one of three members of that Commission. What were the findings of the COI on Syria?

YE: The Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria was established in accordance with a Human Rights Council resolution adopted in August 2011. I served on the Commission from September 2011 to March 2012. Unfortunately the Syrian government did not give us access to the country. But being a human rights commission our mandate was by its nature victim centred. However, no access to Syria did not mean no access to information. The Commission interviewed 369 victims, witnesses and army defectors who fled to neighbouring countries and reached some in the country by phone. We also used other sources of information such as satellite imagery, doctor’s reports, x-rays etc. to corroborate the testimonies from our informants. As a result, we submitted two reports to the Human Rights Council.  The first report (23 Nov. 2011) documented the human rights violations committed by state forces and it concluded that according to international law grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity were committed pursuant to policies and directives from the top and these acts were committed with complete impunity. The second report (22 Feb. 2012), while updating human rights violations, including abuses by opposition armed groups, focused mainly on the issue of responsibility and accountability. A confidential list containing names of individuals, army units, security agencies etc. who are believed to be responsible for the crimes committed has been deposited with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a sealed envelop to be made available for a future credible investigation by competent authorities. While we did not exclude the application of international jurisdiction, we did not refer Syria to the International Criminal Court( ICC ) as has often been the case. Instead we emphasized that the responsibility to investigate and prosecute lies first with the state and recommended a series of legal and judicial reforms to this end. The COI also called for a broad based negotiated settlement and cautioned against any foreign military intervention.

The Commission’s mandate has been extended until September 2012, at which time the Commission will submit a final report to the HRC. However, due to the lack of access to the country which is essential for a more comprehensive investigation into places such as detention centres, hospitals and the issue of the missing etc, l felt I could no longer contribute in a meaningful way, therefore, I decided to resign. Nonetheless, documentation of the violations must continue, particularly in view of the fact that the Annan plan does not have a human rights component.

DK: What has been the role of the international community in the Syrian crisis?

YE: This is one of the components of the Syrian human rights crisis. The international community has been divided, some supporting the regime others the opposition. This has not only reinforced the internal strife but it has also hindered a common position on stopping the violence. The most promising consensus was achieved on 21 March 2012 with the Security Council presidential statement that endorsed the Annan plan of the joint UN and Arab League mission. However, the international community continues to be deeply divided regarding Syria’s future. Following the SC statement, the second meeting of the Friends of Syria took place on April 1st in Istanbul, bringing together representatives of 83 countries. The communiqué adopted supported the Annan plan and declared the SNC as the “legitimate” representative of Syrian people, among other things. It also displayed the very diverse interests among the proponents of regime change in Syria, with the US, France, Turkey and the Arab Gulf states standing out as the leading actors.  One cannot help but notice that the states pushing for regime change are Sunni hegemonic countries facing problems with their own Shia minorities. For others, toppling the Assad regime is a way to break the Syria/ Iran / Hezbollah bloc, which has been a long standing concern for outside powers. Turkey’s position, on the other hand, is more puzzling.  Once a strong supporter of Bashar al Assad and his government, Turkey has taken an aggressive stand from the outset against the regime. To what extent sectarian motivations are at play in the Turkish government’s Syria policy it is not clear. But its Alawite population among others are not at ease.  An Alawite, speaking to a local newspaper on 15 April (Radikal Gazetesi) said that they supported the cause of the Syrian people but now they are apprehensive as they confront slogans like “Alawites to the grave, Christians to Lebanon”.  While the conflict in Syria is not a sectarian one, sectarianism is now being used by the government and the opposition for their own ends. Inevitably this increases the likelihood of a sectarian war.

DK: What are the broader stakes?

YE:  It would not be wrong to say that the stakes go beyond a democracy and human rights agenda.  The Wider Middle East project was a way for Western interests to infiltrate the region. The Muslim world was split within itself and the discourse of “moderate Islam” became a means of Western encroachment. In fact we need to correct our imperfect secularisms rather than fall into the trap of moderate Islam (defined to suit the convenience of internal or external players). The Turkish opposition is critical of the government stance on Syria mainly because they see it as a western plot. Those who support the Syrian regime cite the debacles of Libya and Iraq which clearly demonstrate the negative effects of foreign interventions. Both the internal mosaic of Syria and the diversity of external interests make for a very complex picture. Countries who favour regime change in Syria (like the US and France) are on the eve of elections, therefore, they are not eager to venture into a risky affair. The Annan mission, which is still on the agenda, is fragile to say the least. There is an impasse at the moment. Despite the ceasefire and the presence of UN observers on the ground the violence is continuing and none of the six points of the Annan plan has been realized. Some observers have already declared the mission a failure but the irony is that there is no other alternative plan for a negotiated settlement. On the contrary militarily options, including the arming of the opposition are gaining greater momentum. Such options can only further militarise Syria and result in an outright civil war with serious regional and global consequences.

DK: Why has the international community failed to comply with its “responsibility to protect”?

YE: The Syrian crisis has once more revealed the gap between international human rights standards and enforcement mechanisms. While, responsibility to protect is a powerful concept there is no international government as such to implement it. We are responding to transnationalized problems within the existing state centric model. States are not equal in power, authority, and wealth. Therefore, they are parties to disputes not impartial arbitrators. If the universal human rights standards are to be observed in responding to human rights violations perpetrated by states or non-state actors there is a need for intermediary monitoring, enforcement and accountability mechanisms that do not get entangled in interstate politics. The ICC is a great invention but it is a last resort.

DK: How are women in Syria faring in this climate?

YE: Several months ago I was told by opposition groups that 30% of the Syrian National Council consists of women but they have so far remained invisible. The military component of the resistance against the regime is naturally entirely male. Some testimonies suggest that women are active at the local level, in the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that operate independently organizing protests, assistance to the victims and monitoring casualty figures. As a result women are gaining new experiences and agency. How this agency at the local level will translate into getting women to the negotiating table is an open question. There are many negative examples from previous conflict zones in this regard. The COI has emphasized the importance of broad based negotiations including women as part of this process.

DK: What about the position of women within the Muslim Brotherhood?

YE: It is difficult to gauge what is happening at the grassroots within Syria and among the rank and file of the Muslim Brotherhood.  As I mentioned earlier the Commission was denied access to the country, therefore, we did not have any basis for making such assessments. But as in many conflict zones among refugees it is possible to see how women are targeted and mobilized by conservative forces. In October 2011 when we visited Jordan, we saw how local Islamist NGOs, with women in the forefront, had organized to meet and settle incoming refugees. There are transnational Islamic linkages across borders receiving and inducting refugees. The situation in Turkey is somewhat different. The influx of refugees is accommodated in seven-eight camps in the provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep and Kilis, totally over 25,000 people. These camps are under local government control. The wider society in Hatay, where the majority of the camps are, is predominantly Alevi and not as forthcoming with Sunni refugees as the neighbouring Arab countries. There are also  many people who are not in the camps and may be integrated in the cities, as you know SNC is based in Istanbul. We have less information on the situation of these people.

DK:  What are the major challenges now?

YE: The success of Islamist parties in the elections in Egypt and Tunisia is no doubt on the minds of many Syrians. Islamization of politics in Syria will not only imply the exclusion of minorities but strict rules for women. In an interview with Colonel Riyadh Asaad last October, I asked his opinion about these concerns. He said that as a military person he does not have a political agenda but that he is fighting for freedom and democracy, and he added, if Islamists come to power through free elections, what is the problem with that? This is a serious dilemma we need to come to terms with. But we also need to recognize that the “politics of fear” of Islamic encroachment has only provided authoritarian regimes and military interventions in the region with a strong pretext to advance their oppressive rule. So, we need to understand why Islamist movements are enjoying popular support and at the same time, we need to confront these forces with democratic demands. As long as democratic processes are observed, when in power Islamic and secular parties alike will have to respond to endemic economic and social problems domestically and engage with a complex set of values and standards internationally. Those who succeed will prevail and those who do not will be eliminated.  Syria’s pluralism and experience with secularism can hopefully curb radical forces. It is, therefore, all the more important that a broad based negotiated settlement is achieved in Syria. Proponents of militarization of Syria must recognize that this will only empower the most radical groups. Islamic totalitarianism will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yakin Ertürk served on the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Republic established by the UN Human Rights Council from Sept 2011 to March 2012


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