Two years after the conflict erupted in Syria, our reflections are based on poring over and sifting through all the facts as well as biases held by international players—both the ones supporting the regime and those intent on toppling it. Everyone seems to expect Geneva-2 to come up with a solution, negotiated by the US and Russian governments, whereas the Syrian people, who bear the brunt of all the consequences of the ongoing war, have little or no say in drafting any proposals.
The Syrian crisis has been internationalized and the big players are trying to score strategically through their proxies. The outcome of these policies has already cost Syria an estimated 200 billion dollars, the loss of over 90,000 lives and the displacement of five million people. A stalemate has been reached at the Security Council with some Western powers—or hawkish elements within their borders—lifting the arms embargo to the opposition, but blocked repeatedly by China and Russia.
The other game changer in the Syrian arena is the dominant Jabhat Al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda offshoot, on the rebels’ side, transforming what aspired to be a Damascus spring into an endless bloody war, with little prospect of peace in the foreseeable future. As the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire put it recently, after her fact-finding mission to Syria and Lebanon: “The Syrian state is under a proxy war led by foreign countries.” Her visit, arranged by the religious reconciliation movement Musalaha,1 included delegates from seven countries. Maguire believes peace is achievable provided interference by rival sectarian groups and other foreign powers is halted, and Syrians allowed to find their own solutions in line with the principle of self-determination.
What began as a “Spring” has turned into a freezing winter of utter devastation. The jasmine flowers of Damascus failed to bloom as they should: the season that brings life and hope has taken a heavy, and rising toll of lives.
The war is being portrayed as a Sunni-led war against the Alawites. From our view, this is a complete fallacy adopted by the media in the West. Of course, this may be based on the fact that most Syrians—both pro- and anti-Assad—want freedom from a regime reluctant to loosen its grip on power. For all its faults—intolerance of dissent, the slow pace of reform, censorship, torture and other serious acts, the Assad administration has maintained a stable though sometimes tense relationship with its neighbors (many of them critical of Syria’s close ties with Russia and Iran).
While Syrians have every right to freedom and are entitled to speedier implementation of long-promised reforms, outsiders fail to recognize some key distinctions about Syria and President Bashar Assad—a British-trained opthalmologist and his Sunni wife, a British-born Syrian citizen, who also was educated in the UK.
The ruling Ba’ath party nominated and subsequently elected Assad as president in 2000, following the death of his father Hafez Assad. Since taking on the presidency, Assad has introduced reforms in labor, economic and financial policies and other changes that have transitioned Syria from a highly controlled administration into a comparatively liberal market economy. In terms of government services and benefits, one can cite Syria’s debt-free status as remarkable for a nation of 23 million while many others struggled through a worldwide recession. Its unemployment rate has been around 8%; home-ownership is reported to be around 91% and mostly mortgage-free, while health care and higher education are free and medicines are subsidized by the state.
A majority of Syrians were drawn into what they hoped would be an opening toward democratic reform; but they realized later that the changes were taking on a sectarian drift. Data collected by various independent groups and relayed to NATO analysts in June indicated that 70% of Syrians supported the Assad regime, 20% were neutral and 10% expressed support for the rebels. When compared to last year’s Doha Debate poll showing 56% support for the Assad regime, it seems clear that Syrians, who are generally speaking, moderate in their religious views, were rejecting the jihadist agenda of Jabhat Al-Nusra and their associates elsewhere.
While the state bears at least some responsibility for the carnage, the insurgents as a collective are no less guilty. Both sides have accused the other of using chemical weapons (in particular, sarin) on citizens. Irrefutable proof of first-use has yet to surface; but allegations of sarin use by the Syrian army has already provided a pretext for more US involvement in the conflict. President Obama is being pressured, perhaps against his own best judgement, to act on his word by arming the rebels, now that the “Red Line” has been crossed.
Many who were initially sympathetic to the rebels are reviewing their support. Even Syrians who had historically opposed the Assad regime have been targeted by extremist factions, because they did not subscribe to the Sunni fundamentalist views of Al Qaeda. Nor were they prepared to accept the prospect of Sharia law under a new regime. The brutal killing of the (Sunni) Grand Sheikh Al-Bouti in March 2013 and the kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in April constituted an unprecedented shift that threatened moderates of all persuasions, especially minority Christians and Alawites.
Constitutional reforms in Syria were proposed in the first months of the rebellion, aiming to address the issues that had been raised by Syrians for decades. As demands grew stronger, 49 new government decrees were implemented or negotiated, including those on press freedom, the establishment of new political parties, the abolition of the emergency martial law and other matters relating to freedom of expression and civil rights.
If the extremists fail to dislodge the current regime, a NATO-led attack is a distinct possibility and will likely be launched from Turkey. The responsibility to protect Syria’s people from further devastation will be invoked as the rationale for military intervention. Given its domestic problems, Turkey may decide to keep its hands off Syria. But this will not stop others from pursuing their anti-Assad agenda.
In spite of its “red line” rhetoric, the US may have come to recognize that a diplomatic resolution of the Syrian crisis is a more viable alternative than military intervention, as Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in recent comments. Meanwhile, many oligarchic regimes, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to their two-pronged support—weapons and jihad—for the insurgents.
What is needed now is a peace agenda, best expressed by Anna McDonald of Oxfam, who urges “… more diplomacy and a complete halt [to] the influx of weapons…”.
Syria remains a nation with a rich cultural heritage, spanning the pre-Christian, Christian, Ottoman, and modern eras. Christianity has spread from Syria to several countries around the world. Prior to the Muslim conquest of the Levant in AD 634-635, the region was a part of the Byzantine empire and was mainly inhabited by Christians.
Modern Syria is a secular, constitutional republic. It has a presidential system of government, where executive powers are shared between the president—who is head of state, the High Judicial Council, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and the Prime Minister who is head of government.
Syrian state law makes no mention of, or reference to, governance based on a confessional majority. The reality is that 70% of Syria’s current population is Sunni, with their elected representatives identified not by religion, but rather on their political philosophy, or that of the party to which they belong. (In Lebanon, by contrast, MPs are elected to represent each of the recognized sectarian communities.)
The armed forces are 70% Sunni, while the Alawites (10% of the population) are overrepresented at 15%, still a small minority and in contradiction to the argument that the forces are Alawi-dominated. Moreover, Armenians and other Christians have held the highest ranks both in the armed forces and the Defence Ministry. For example, Daoud Rajha, a Christian, was minister of defence until his assassination in July 2012.
The current cabinet in Damascus has only one Alawi minister and the majority of Syrians do not have a problem with the demographic mix of their leaders responsible for shaping the nation’s social, economic and political life.
The Syrian government is committed to holding national elections in 2014, according to the constitution. Such elections would hopefully culminate in the settlement of outstanding issues.
The Syrian leadership has consented to hold internationally supervised elections that will decide the political future of the nation. In the face of demands from other states and rebels that the president should step down, Assad has asserted that Syrians, and Syrians alone, have the right to choose their leader.
For peace to be achieved in Syria, other states—in particular, the US and NATO—must unconditionally respect the sovereignty and legitimacy of the Syrian state by keeping out of the nation’s internal affairs. Unlike the armed opposition—now largely made up of Al Qaeda affiliates—Syria has the right to establish economic, political, and military relations with any member-state of the United Nations. These simple principles, enshrined in international law and diplomacy, must be respected in order to stop this most vicious war and to allow for the rebuilding of Syria, the cradle of civilization.
Nour El Kadri is vice-president of the Canadian Arab Federation and professor of engineering at University of Ottawa.
Christopher Assad is director of the Coalition of Arab Canadian Professionals.
1 The Multinational Peace Report is available on the Peace People website at www.peacepeople.com/?p=256