February 25, 2014

Lack of real representation of Syrians doomed the Geneva meetings

    Tuesday, February 25, 2014   No comments

Two rounds of indirect talks between representatives of the Syrian government and some representatives of the Syrian Coalition have failed to launch a political dialogue to end the deadly crisis in Syria, now entering its fourth year. The failure was expected. Members of the opposition forces did not represent even the Coalition, many of whose members resigned before the meetings. Other opposition groups were excluded due to Western insistence that all opposition negotiators must come to the meeting under the leadership of the Coalition. That rendered the meetings meaningless. Moreover, the Coalition’s exertion of a veto over Iran’s participation while inviting Saudi Arabia--the main backer of the armed groups--killed all hope for ending the bloody conflict.

The so-called “Friends of Syria” are united in their dislike to the Syrian government and their desire to overthrow Assad. They are not united by their care for the Syrian people. That reality is evident from their financial and military support for armed groups when compared to their reluctance to admit Syrian refugees. The most ardent supporters of the armed factions in Syria have provided no significant support for refugees and admitted none. When they met early this year (January 14) in Kuwait, Western and Arab countries pledged only $2.4 billion to help Syrian refugees, by February 20, only 12% of that money actually came through. Countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who spent nearly $8 billion on arming and supporting the rebels, pledged just $60 million in humanitarian aid and they took in no refugees.

Moreover, the armed fighters who are romanticized as rebels when fighting in Syria will be treated as criminals upon returning to their countries. The royal decree that will send fighters returning from “jihad” to prison for three to twenty years is the right policy, but might be too little too late.

The peaceful uprising in Syria turned violent under the pretext of protecting civilians from the government forces. Despite this pretext of protection, more than 100,000 people (from all sects and ethnic groups) have been killed. Instead of protecting civilians, civilians became currency in a bloody trade. Neither the Syrian government nor the so-called “Friends of Syria” are telling the full truth when they cite the number of dead people, destroyed homes, and displaced families: The victims are from both sides, and both sides have committed atrocities. Leaders of the Syrian Coalition claim that they represent the Syrian people. The Syrian government claims that it represents the Syrian people. These claims can be ascertained by free and transparent elections and that should be the goal. Both sides must recognize that violence is rarely a solution, especially in multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian societies.

At this point, each side had achieved the goal of reducing each other’s acceptability in the eyes of the larger Syrian population. Neither the government nor any one opposition group represents all the Syrian people. The government lost the loyalty of people whom it failed to protect, while the opposition lost the loyalty of the minorities (Shi`a, Alawis, Druze, Christian, nationalists, etc.) whom they threaten and slaughter

Some may argue that militarizing the uprising was necessary to counterbalance the government’s use of violence against protesters. Such logic is flawed. It is hypocritical to demonize another for using violence and yet embrace violence as a means for change. The Syrian people could have gained their rights and the respect and support of the people of the world by continuing their peaceful, non-violent protest. A thousand, five thousand, or ten thousand people might have been killed in the process, but it is unlikely that the Syrian government would have killed 100,000 unarmed protesters, destroyed $90 billion worth of private and public structures, and displaced five million people and still found respectable nations around the world willing to defend and support it.

What should be done now? Continue to fight until there is nothing left in Syria to fight for? Or silence the guns, sit down without preconditions or grandstanding, and work out a solution that will preserve the unity of the country and heal the deep wounds every Syrian has suffered? Sane individuals (and their sane friends) would advise the latter path, which is difficult but if done properly could save Syria and the region.

There are many models that have been applied to help countries emerge from civil war and armed strife. Though few of these paradigms have succeeded, it seems clear that what has been proposed for Syria is unlikely to work. 

The Lebanese paradigm has been suggested as a good option for Syria. However, despite the similarities between the two neighboring countries, it is important to remember a few key facts about the Lebanese civil war. First, the relative stability in Lebanon was achieved thanks to Syria’s role in keeping former enemies apart. Second, the stability of Lebanon has been dependent on the temperament and generosity of regional and global powers. Third, most recently, Lebanon was without government for more than ten months. Fourth, there is no regional power that could play the role Syria played in Lebanon then in Syria now.

Sectarian politics in Lebanon made heroes out of genocidal war criminals and rewarded them with exclusive representation of their respective communities in the government. In sectarian politics, where each branch of the government is controlled by politicians from a specific sect or religious community, democracy and elections lose any meaningful function. Political settlements that distribute power on the basis of ethnicity or religious affiliation effectively institutionalize sectarianism, factionalism, and cronyism. Such tailored politics paralyze governments (as is the case with Lebanon today) and render elections inconsequential.

In Libya, foreign forces aided disparate rebels to overthrow a brutal regime militarily. Then, the country was left unassisted in dealing with bringing these various armed groups under control. Consequently, Libya may face disintegration or prolonged instability that could cross into neighboring countries like Tunisia and Algeria. Considering that the main supporter of the Syrian rebels was Qatar (and Saudi Arabia), the two countries that engineered and bankrolled the Libyan rebellion, it becomes clear that Qatari rulers had envisioned that the Libyan model could be easily applied to Syria. It is clear by now that their calculus was flawed.  

There are better options for Syria. Syrians don’t have to settle for an authoritarian regime or a fragmented country. They can emerge out of this crisis stronger, more united, and more democratic. Instead of insisting on excluding one another, they should insist on trusting the voters to decide. Instead of embracing sectarian politics, they could institute election laws that would require that all elected officials win at least 25 percent of the votes of minority groups within their electoral districts (or nationally for presidential elections). Such a threshold would weed out sectarian criminals, not reward them. It would force politicians to be more inclusive in their speeches and politics, and encourage them to build bridges between communities rather than pandering to their ethnic or sectarian constituents.

Syrians are informed citizens who value their ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. It is likely that they do not want to replace partisan authoritarianism with religious authoritarianism. They do not want to live in segregated neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Families displaced by the war do not want to be resettled. They want to return to their homes, their neighborhoods, their farms, their towns, and their cities. A settlement based on sectarian mapping will fragment the country and destabilize the region. 

For all the above reasons, Syria’s neighbors, especially Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, and Lebanon should help the Syrians to pursue a principled healing reconciliation that unite all Syrians not avenge past acts that cannot be undone. They need to help Syrians overcome the wounds of war and sectarian discourses not just for the sake of Syria, but for their own sakes.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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