In a matter of a few days, the bloody terrorist attacks in Turkey and the Israeli raids into Syria have come to remind us of the extreme severity of the Syrian tragedy and the perils of regional destabilization that it engenders.
As if to add to the confusion, Ms Del Ponte – international magistrate and member of a UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria – took the liberty of accusing the opposition of having used chemical weapons without offering any evidence as to these allegations. The claim was therefore immediately retracted by the UN. Del Ponte has thus added her voice to those many who try to impugn the reality of a situation in which a regime has declared war on its own people.
There have indeed been a great many false pretences: infiltrated groups from abroad causing clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces, erroneous information systematically published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition inspired and supervised by nations hostile to Syria, or those fundamentalist Sunni currents with jihadist tendencies that foster alliances with Al-Qaeda.
Even if, admittedly, the situation is of an impossible complexity and all kinds of manipulation are thriving, such reductionist affirmations do not hold water. Right from the start in March 2011, the only aggressions committed were those perpetrated by the forces of the regime: firing real bullets into peacefully demonstrating crowds, arbitrary arrests, torture, mass killings of civilians by militias and the army. The movements of contestation have not restricted themselves to towns but have also seized the countryside and the universities such as those of Aleppo and Damascus. If it were only a matter of a few tiny groups of agitators funded from abroad, the Syrian security forces would have soon taken care of neutralizing the spearheads.
The harsh repression has continued to escalate and quickly attained a military dimension that is disallowed in international law. In fact, no one has the right to carry out law enforcement measures using aviation and heavy weaponry to bomb civilians and destroy hospitals, to fire ballistic missiles into populated areas and to use chemical weapons as seems to have been the case. Those are crimes against humanity and war crimes as understood in international law.
This does not exonerate the assaults committed by certain armed groups of the opposition. In the face of this tragedy and the massive violations of law, international institutions have remained powerless. What has become of the UN peace missions entrusted to Kofi Annan and later Lakhdar Brahimi is no secret. They stalled as soon as they were enacted. The UN Security Council is paralysed by the Russian veto so that no measure can be taken to conjure a clear “threat against peace and international security” as it says in Chapter VII of the Charter. This deadlock blocks every attempt to implement the “responsibility to protect” peoples - a responsibility, however, that “devolves on the international community in the framework of the UN” according to resolutions 1674 (2006) and 1894 (2009) and that was put into force in Libya and the Ivory Coast. And it is fruitless to appeal to the International Criminal Court. This inaction of the international community can be explained by many reasons. While some of those are well-founded, others are tantamount to myth and serve as a pretext to remain immobile.
Syria has been a stabilizing element in the Middle East, but to depict it without nuance as the country able to make headway against Israel when it comes to supporting the Palestinian cause is more than questionable. To say that the Assad clan protects minorities and that without it, the risk of sectarian confrontations would be likelier, is equally excessive. Kurds have been marginalized. Despite opening up to Christians, the majority of the latter have left the country since 1970.
The religious question has also been exploited and minorities – the Alawites included – have been taken hostage by the ruling powers. The development of a societal Islamic current has been promoted despite going against the commonly held belief of a secular regime that defends Christians. The contradictions of the opposition and its difficulties to unite itself remain an obstacle, but when it takes pains over building a national coalition these efforts are hardly reciprocated.
Meanwhile Russia supplies the arms that the regime needs without any qualms. The interference of Iran is considerable. Hisbollah partakes with their own soldiers. Without these forms of assistance the regime of Bashar al-Assad would certainly not have been able to hold out against this popular revolt as long as it has. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not directly involved, but funds from essentially private sources reach those segments of the opposition who share the interests and ideological orientations of their donors.
As to western states that have proclaimed their outrage during the G8 meeting last April in light of the high death toll, they hesitate, they tergiversate, they say one thing only to announce its very opposite shortly after. They take refuge behind the fact that nothing can legally be done without the endorsement of the Security Council.
It goes without saying that a military action without the participation of the UN would spark severe international reactions and, without a doubt, heavy retaliation from the regime. It would thus only add war to the war. According to Washington the only configuration that could change the conditions is the deployment of chemical weapons by the regime. This now seems to have happened, yet the US have not moved. Obama's red lines resemble the line of the horizon that veers away when one approaches it. This entails heavy consequences; “it's an invitation to further chemical attacks”, writes the Washington Post. And it is also a go-ahead for killing in a “conventional” fashion. Not to do anything is doubtless the worst that can be done as it comes down to letting an already intolerable situation deteriorate even further.
For the UN it is a humanitarian catastrophe: 80, 000 dead and 400, 000 wounded, 1.4 million registered refugees and 4 million forced to resettle, out of a total of 21 million inhabitants. Six million are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, tens of thousands of children are deprived of an education since one school in five is unusable. Cities are entirely or partially destroyed as are sites of inestimable historical value.
If this situation persists, all of Syria will continue to decay. The level of violence has already reached such heights that the horror has become ordinary and the most rudimentary ethical principles have been shattered. The regime primarily bears the blame of this moral collapse for it has from the outset used the most abominable means to counter a revolt it was anathema to it. The region will become more and more unstable. That already becomes evident considering the flux of refugees into riparian states like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq. The Damascus-Teheran axis will come out fortified. Russia will have proven its capacity to re-emerge as a superpower – but at what price? The UN will once more be discredited and its principles spurned.
A political solution is therefore indispensable and urgent... without Bashar al-Assad but with certain personalities close to the regime. But can such an option be disconnected from the power relations on the ground? If the answer is no, then it is necessary to provide arms to the opposition so as to enable it to protect the population. If the answer is yes, Russia needs to be convinced to change posture. But can we earnestly believe Moscow will be deflected from its posture without tipping the power relations on the grounds? Probably not.
Action is thus required and this action may consist in neutralizing areal and ground forces carrying out bombardments so as to secure the zones under the control of the opposition. This scenario raises at least two objections:
- Support for the opposition would strengthen it, while the regime would continue to find external backing and would hence not be forced to the negotiating table. This analysis presupposes Russia, Iran and Hisbollah to be ready for an all-out war to support the Syrian regime. One might imagine that Russia would soon envision a regime change in Syria if it were evident that the Syrian bombers were doomed to destruction.
- In the event of a neutralization of Syrian means of assault thanks to arms delivered to the rebels, there is a risk of weapons landing into the hands of radical Islamists. The apparently increasing powers of those combatants such as the Jabhat Al-Nusrah makes such an endeavour difficult but shouldn't serve as an excuse to remain passive. There must be a way to oversee the flow of arms while making sure that they will exclusively be delivered to the Free Syrian Army.
France announces an arms delivery but retracts. The US have yet again considered the option. Announcements like these create false hopes and encourage dead-end actions by those who buy into them. Without follow-ups they may even hazard the lives of further people.
If a straightforward intervention is impossible without the legitimacy of the UN, abandoning the opposition to its own dynamics and contradictions can only help strengthen the more radical elements within it, which in turn will provoke even more arbitrary repression. That's when we will realize that inaction leads to slaughter. But then it will be too late.
The following coauthored this piece: LEILA VIGNAL Maîtresse de conférences en géographie, JEAN-PAUL CHAGNOLLAUD Professeur des universités, GHAISS JASSER Docteur d'Etat ès lettres, AGNÈS LEVALLOIS Consultante, journaliste indépendante, PIERRE LAFRANCE Ambassadeur de France, GÉRAUD DE LA PRADELLE Professeur émérite des universités, juriste international
Thanks to Moh Hamdi for translating this article from the French, which originally appeared in Liberation on May 13, 2013.