Syria, authoritarianism, war, and peace

I regret that I haven’t had much time in recent months to blog and write about the many developments in the still-unfolding ‘Arab Spring.’ However, I think that much of what I was writing back in March and April– especially on the extremely upsetting and complicated series of events in Libya and Syria– has stood the test of time pretty well. That has been particularly the case, I think, with regard to the warnings I issued ( e.g. 1, 2) about the danger of trying to use military tools, as in Libya, in order to pursue a claimed human-rights agenda, and with regard to the calls I made (e.g. 1, 2, and in this late-May discussion at the Middle East Institute, MP3) for people to focus on achieving a reform process in Syria that is negotiated, inclusive, and wide-ranging rather than continuing to pursue only shrill and personalized “rights” campaigns that all too easily and often shift over into highly politicized calls for regime change.
I repeat: War and extreme social conflict are always and necessarily injurious to the rights of the civilian residents of the conflict zone, especially the most vulnerable. Armchair activists in the west who have never lived in a war zone often have zero understanding of this fact.
(Though I am strong critic, on pacifist grounds, of the whole concept of a “just” war, I do think the first proponents of that originally Christian doctrine understood the always-injurious nature of war; and they coded that understanding into their injunctions that wars should only be undertaken when there was a strong chance of a speedy and decisive victory, and when the goods to be gained through any proposed war could be seen to clearly outweigh the evils that would necessarily accompany it. No-one back then ever proclaimed the idea of an “easy” war that would be a “cakewalk” or that would bring “only” good to the world! How tragic that so many in the west have lost sight of that deep wisdom embedded into the “western” tradition… )
Back to Syria, though. There, as in Libya, we have a situation in which both the regime and the opposition have now proven their resilience. This is, of course, a recipe for stalemate and prolonged conflict that, so long as it lasts– and it has now lasted several months– will cause immediate harm to Syrians of all political persuasions while also sowing the seeds of a possible much more serious social breakdown (fitna) in the future.
I want to ask two questions:
1. How many of those in the west who are now clamoring for immediate regime change in Syria think the negotiated transition from minority rule to democracy that occurred in South Africa in the early 1990s was a good thing? I would imagine the vast majority of them (of you) do.
So has the violence enacted by the minority regime in Syria even come close to the violence enacted by the former minority regime in South Africa against its people?
No. I thought not.
So why was a negotiated transition to democracy good in South Africa, while most western rights activists shudder at the very idea of one in Syria? (I hope the answer is not a racist one: Namely, that westerners were prepared to give a generous pass to members of the minority regime in South Africa because they were “white”… but they’re not prepared to do so to members of the Alawite regime in Syria because, um, they’re just another bunch of Ay-rabs… )
2. Can I invite you to a thought experiment?
I know from my own extensive research that Israel came very close to concluding a peace agreement with Syria at two points since the 1991 Madrid Conference: firstly, in 1994-95, and secondly, in 2000.
Imagine if one of those attempts had succeeded… Then, in early 2011, when the winds of the Arab Spring started blowing in Syria they would have been blowing in a country that (like Egypt) had regained all the national territory seized by Israel in 1967 and held for many years thereafter, and that was in a state of fairly well-entrenched final peace with Israel.
How different would such a Syria have been? How different would have been the role of the “security” forces in the country’s politics and national culture? How different would Syria’s whole society and economy have been from what we see there today?
Note that I am not here just mindlessly “blaming Israel” for all the woes currently besetting Syria and its people. The people inside Syria– on both sides– who have been pursuing their agendas through violence must bear the first responsibility for the losses inflicted. (And there, as in South Africa or U.S.-occupied Iraq, or anywhere else, it has been the dominant security forces that have inflicted the vast majority of the casualties…)
But still, it is worth noting that the security forces in Syria in general have only continued to occupy the bloated social, economic, and cultural role that they have been occupying because of Israel’s steadfast intransigence in the peace negotiations over the years, and because of the extreme reluctance of Israel’s negotiators to abide by the Security Council resolutions (and longstanding international norms) that insist that Israel cannot hang onto any of the Syrian territory that it occupied through war, back in 1967.
If Syria in 2011 had been in a situation of peace with Israel since 2000– even a “cold” peace, as between Egypt and Israel– then might not the internal interaction between pro-democracy forces and the military look more like what happened in Tahrir Square, and since then, in Egypt this year?
In Tahrir Square, the leaders of the military were abiding by an arrangement they had reached with the political leadership (in that time, Pres. Sadat) back in 1977, under which they vowed they would never turn their tanks against civilian protesters. Yes, I realize that pledge was given even before Egypt concluded its peace with Israel in 1978-79. But still, the fact of the peace with Israel made it a lot easier for the Egyptian military in 2011 to once again abide by the pledge they had made in 1977.
… Ah, it’s too late now to “imagine” what Syria might have looked like today if either the 1994-95 or the 2000 peace talks with Israel had succeeded. Those of us around the world who care deeply about the wellbeing of Syria’s 21 million people face the situation we face.
For my part, I’ll continue to call for a reform process in Syria that is negotiated, wide-ranging, authentically Syrian, and inclusive (including of representatives of the present regime, as well as, of course, the different strands of the opposition)– rather than calling for any specific outcome such as either the downfall or the continuation of the present regime.
(In South Africa, putting the focus on the need for real reform and respect for a truly democratic nationwide election proved to be the key that winkled the pro-apartheid National Party out of office– and gave them a decent, respected position in the political opposition… until the NP withered completely on the vine around ten years later.)
I call for the same kind of negotiated outcome in Libya, where goodness knows the damage caused by this terrible, tragic war that NATO has waged for the past five months has been unconscionable.
But in the case of Syria, let’s also not forget that the country is still one that it is in a state of war with its neighbor, Israel; and that the only way to end that state of war is through conclusion of a final peace agreement that implements all the conditions of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. If westerners in countries that have given huge support to Israel for the past 40 years truly want to help the people of Syria– including the very numerous Syrian citizens still prevented from returning to their families’ homes and farms inside the occupied Golan– then surely they (we) should be agitating hard for Israel to conclude the kind of rules-based peace with Syria that it concluded with Egypt back in 1979. Certainly, no U.S. government aid to Israel, whether economic or military, should be given in a way that entrenches and strengthens Israel’s hold on the occupied Golan.

5 thoughts on “Syria, authoritarianism, war, and peace

  1. bb

    Helena, I have always admired your pacifism even though I don’t think it is realistic. But at least Nato intervention in Libya has prevented the regime from killing its civilian opponents and eventually there will be a negotiated settlement in that country and the regime will give way.
    In contrast Assad has been able to kill thousands of his (extraordinarily brave, imo) civilian opponents over several weeks now with absolute impunity. And not one word of condemnation from you. How can you excuse it by saying that Assad has killed less of his people than the SA regime did? What is your evidence that the Assad regime is remotely interested in a negotiated transition to democracy. Don’t you recall that the SA regime was brought to the table by years of stringent world sanctions, but you are not even recommending this course for Assad and his thugs?
    Its really rather shocking to read you misusing and exploiting the SA example to justify the cruel actions of the Assad regime against its victims: and cynically heartless, too, I’m afraid.

  2. Yousef

    The transition in South Africa is a great model to follow. However, while in South Africa it was a transition from a minority rule to democracy, in Syria it is more accurate to speak of a transition from a family rule to democracy. This family rule is based on self-serving alliances across the demographic spectrum, but employs sectarian manipulations and fear for perpetuating total domination. In an effort to legitimize this domination and to reject any reform, it continues to use Arab national, revolutionary and even progressive rhetoric.
    We can look at other models of transition from military dictatorship to democracy, especially those of Turkey, Argentina, Chile and Spain.
    In South Africa, the transition was possible only when the regime accepted a political solution to the conflict after decades of security-military repression.
    The Syrian regime is yet to acknowledge the existence of a popular uprising or domestic political opposition. Instead, the regime continues to describe the conflict as one between Syria and an international conspiracy, using armed gangs, infiltrators and terrorists. Even Aljazeera is accused of being part of this conspiracy.
    To encourage the regime to seek a political solution and to stop the killings, the international community, particularly the currently silent Arab countries, the Arab league and the GCC, must exert political pressure on the regime. Any outside military intervention would be counterproductive if not catastrophic. The NATO show in Libya would pale in comparison.
    The US is showing much caution in dealing with the Syrian regime for geopolitical reasons. The Syrian regime has important cards to play in Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, but most importantly in Iraq, through its strategic alliance with Iran. Obama committed a strategic blunder in making Iran an enemy of the US. Initially, the President was for dialogue with Iran, but, as he has done consistently, he abandoned his own positions and adopted the policies of Netanyahu and his friends in DC. Also, in the 1990s, the “dual containment” strategic blunder was Israeli-inspired. This US caution is affecting the positions of Arab countries, especially in the GCC.
    The continued Israeli illegal occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights and refusal to conclude a peace agreement with Syria, gave the Syrian regime an excuse to integrate all state institutions into the regime structure, to employ iron-fest control of every aspect of Syrian life and to silence any call for reform. In Egypt, despite the repressive nature of the Mubarak regime, the army remained an independent institution. In Syria, the army, and the entire security apparatus, are built to protect the regime, more than to defend the state.

  3. Salah

    More than one million children are at risk of death in Somalia urgent need of life-saving care.People from around the world will increase funding for victims of the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa.

    Let ask all of you, which one more serious here? Syria or Somalia?
    In both place people dying, but which one more in your mind have priority to make our voices loud and let help them.

  4. Jack

    I too am amazed at helena’scontinuing excuses and apologies for the Assad regime. You seem so clear on other issues, that I just do not understand your blind spot with respect to the Assads. Using tanks to crush peaceful protests is immoral and can no way be excused. There can be no negotiated settlement with a thug like Assad – assuming that he is actually in charge. Like Mubarak and Ben Ali, he must go and the whole rotten structure around him must go. Assad is certainly no De Clerk and I cannot conceive of how one can negotiate with such a thug. Helena, please explain your position on Assad and why he should not be removed and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

  5. Eurosabra

    The dilemma for Israel is that Syria has military capacities similar to Egypt’s and no buffer like the Sinai, thus, a commitment to giving Syria everything it wanted in the Galilee (because the shoreline is no longer really the Golan) brings back memories of the Syrian success in ’48 in Mishmar HaYarden and the prospect of leaving a permanent bridgehead (at the Bnot Ya’akov Bridge) for the Syrian army in the next war. Jordan does in fact have bridges with Israel that pose such a dilemma but it also has a much warmer peace than Syria would be willing to give, a much smaller army, no strategic weapons aimed at Israel, no Hezbollah, and no Hama and relatively better treatment of Israelis who fell into its hands. I assume that the dispute really was over the exact line and that Israel was not insisting on concessions on Hezbollah, Lebanon, etc. that were not really Syria’s to give anyway. So given that Syria was not going to yield part of the Golan to give Israel the water supply security it needs for the Sea of Galilee/Lake Tiberias/Kineret, Israel was also not going to give the June 4th ’67 line without a comprehensive warm peace of the type Syria is unlikely to grant anyway. I mean, there was a very real gap in interests and security advantage so I’m afraid what you really mean to me as an Israeli is that Israel should have accepted the Syrian line in order to stabilize a Syrian regime that would have done Israel no favors on Lebanon, water, or anything else it wanted besides grudging recognition and perhaps the SCUD missiles being pointed elsewhere for one day.

Comments are closed.