Friday 15 June 2012

Syria: The Dangers of Desperation

Sam Storr

Bullets litter the  ground in Houla. Reuters.
If the last two decades hold a lesson about crisis prevention and intervention, it is that the international community has been fairly poor at it. As all parties to the conflict combine to turn Syria into a violent pressure-cooker, dire predictions are being made of what kind of tipping point might eventually be reached, even raising the ghosts of past Annan plans in Bosnia and Rwanda. This international community called upon by the rebels – comprising reluctant liberal-internationalist-opportunists, authoritarian dictatorships, and religious Gulf States – should beware the influence it could have on the dynamics of the conflict. All steps should be taken to avoid endorsing the Assad plan.
The scale of the violence in Syria continues to escalate, and is said to be past the point of a convenient solution, such as the ‘Yemenskii Variant’ given much thought in Russia. The UN Human Rights Commissioner is adamant that there will be no easy escape for Bashar Al-Assad’s regime through amnesty. Assad continues because he believes the opposition can be crushed before he is totally isolated, a possibility which remains in flux. If he is abandoned though, there might be little reason for him to stop. The temptation will grow to suspect him of madness, unable to accept defeat or to react in any other way.
As Syria becomes portrayed as a sectarian conflict, it is apparent that Assad might follow a logic darker than the death impulse. A dominant explanation for why a society might suddenly implode holds that a challenged leadership can draw its supporters (the in-group) closer around them by encouraging xenophobic feelings towards the rest (the out-group). It is believed that the increasingly corrupt and isolated Hutu elite ruling Rwanda in 1994 instigated genocide against the Tutsi in an ultimately suicidal attempt to reaffirm their authority and support among the Hutu majority. An internationally-imposed agreement was on the cusp of forcing them to share power with the enemy Tutsi, at the cost of their patronage system. The killing may also have been intended to ensure that the international community could never again attempt to reunite Rwanda.
Assad’s power system is similarly constituted, with Alawites dominating the government and the army, in particular the component causing violence. Not all Alawites have in fact prospered under Assad either. The arming of loyalist Shabbiha militias, said to have played a large role in the Houla massacre, show how the use of violence can be transferred from state to society. 
Even the worst possibilities for Syria will not match Rwanda, as Alawites only constitute 12% of the population and there exists nothing near the same background of war and hostility. Assad’s rhetoric of ‘foreign-backed terrorists’ is diversionary, rather than the dehumanising descriptions of ‘cockroaches’ favoured by the Hutu and Colonel Gaddafi. Nonetheless, he certainly intends to bind the fate of his people to his own, so that the foundations of his rule will be as strong as his actions are horrifying. By spreading violence and retaliation he could make a monster of Islamism and the Sunnis, putting fear into his Christian supporters. By preventing an acceptable opposition from forming, and damaging the prospects of any future settlement, he would frustrate and deter the international community. Recent sympathetic violence in Lebanon also raises the danger of chaos throughout the Middle East.
It is impossible to tell how close any of this is to reality; the Shia-Alawite versus Sunni narrative might be exaggerated by the political context in the Middle East; Western analysis might play into the regime’s hands by sensationalising the unknown. It is not so long since Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy took the policy world – and Bill Clinton - by storm with its apocalyptic vision of a descent into tribal violence. 
Feelings about sectarianism and how to face it polarise Syrians themselves. Some regime defectors are pleading with their fellow Alawites to believe that their future is not inextricably linked to the legacy of Assad. Sectarianism remains a choice for Syria, to be determined over the course of this conflict. Even when attempting caution, the international community should ensure that it always supports that.
For Western nations (barring Russia) to hold off responsibility, vocally supporting peace whilst tacitly condoning arms imports by Sunni regimes, is hypocritical and may fuel the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Even when calling for international probes into Syrian war crimes, it is important to avoid making villains of the Alawites in general. However, the extreme difficulty of dealing with sectarianism, and avoiding polarisation, is demonstrated by the international community’s extremely mixed form in the past.

UN observers, informing the world of Syria's breakdown. Reuters.
The genocidal massacres that took advantage of poorly-defended or militarised humanitarian space in Srebrenica, Zaire, and perhaps more recently in the Sudan, should worry those advocating it as a soft-intervention compromise to avoid ‘embarrassing’ the US (whilst shaming Obama). Humanitarian space must be demilitarised and open to all; Assad’s military strength would require a heavy defence and precludes a Libya-style solution. In former Yugoslavia, aerial intervention at first greatly accelerated the atrocities committed by both sides, although the Serbs were singled out for the demonization that accompanied an illegal NATO bombing of civilian targets. 
The Rwandan genocide saw a victor’s democracy emerge for the Tutsi army. President Paul Kagame has since been lavished with praise and aid, despite his forces arguably committing their own genocide in Zaire where Hutu forces thrived in refugee camps. Kagame believes his strict laws banning ethnic self-determination and genocide-denial are necessary to avoid a repeat of the still-recent violence, but is accused of exploiting them to maintain his authoritarian rule. 
By contrast, a strong international involvement in Bosnia and Herzegovina assumed differences to be irreconcilable, imposing a fiendishly complex political system whereby ethnic groupings were each given their own special status and divided into cantons, ensuring that ethnicity remains central to a weak and contradictory national politics. 
The greatest case for caution comes from Iraq, where the shallow but costly achievement of US interests created a nation that would soon unravel in sectarian violence. The criminalisation of the entire Ba’athist party after the 2003 invasion of Iraq only fuelled a weak state and the later insurgency. This demonstrates that the need to end impunity and create justice must also be balanced against the impact on stability
International criminal proceedings have been criticised for being too shallow and insensitive to local politics. Above all, the prosecution of justice must be seen to be fair and impartial. Where violence has occurred between communities that coexist in areas such as in Homs, justice based on truth and reconciliation may be more appropriate. Amongst the confusion, desperation and self-interest that will dominate any international response, the central guiding principle should be to keep the options for Syria’s future open.

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