What’s taking place in Syria is more complex than what my previous piece on the country, The Syrian Demand, reveals. Since that time, more facts have emerged that provide a more nuanced understanding of the situation. It is important to keep in mind that both sides have interests and motivations, and that “both sides” may not necessarily represent just two, cohesive sides. Those who are interested in truth must be open to the complexities of human affairs.
The recent “Houla massacre” (the quotes denote the mainstream version) for example, is an interesting case. Internationally, it was depicted as a government or pro-government (militias) crime. However the details about what happened are still unclear. Jon Williams of the BBC writes,
“In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear. Whatever the cause, officials fear the attack marks the beginning of the sectarian aspect of the conflict.”
The massacre has even been linked to anti-government forces. The high-profile German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) found that militant anti-Assad Sunnis were responsible for the killings, the victims being mostly Alawites and Shias in fact. Naturally there should be an independent investigation to confirm what happened. But what’s significant here is the lesson that we should not rush to judgments. We should instead heed the words of Robert Mood, the head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), when he reflects, “Whatever I learned on the ground in Syria…is that I should not jump to conclusions.”
Another unresolved detail of the Syrian conflict has been the death figures. “Activists,” “opposition groups,” and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (a questionable organization) are constantly being cited for death toll numbers without details of whom or how, and also without verification. Nir Rosen, a leading American journalist who’s recently travelled throughout the country, spending time with both supporters and opponents of the government, reveals,
“Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.
And, every day, members of the Syrian army, security agencies and the vague paramilitary and militia phenomenon known as shabiha ["thugs"] are also killed by anti-regime fighters.”
When it comes to claims from the opposition, Stratfor, the esteemed Texas-based geopolitical analysis group, indicates that “most of the opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition’s weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime.” Regarding the “massacres” of the Syrian government, Stratfor states that the “regime has calibrated its crackdowns to avoid just such a scenario. Regime forces have been careful to avoid the high casualty numbers that could lead to an intervention based on humanitarian grounds.” Fear of becoming the next Libya is undoubtedly on the mind of the government. Yet it can sometimes be difficult, especially in a prolonged conflict, to be in total control of one’s own forces, as Paul Danahar of BBC News observes.
A very relevant question of identity surrounds those who represent the opposition. In fact, the opposition is derived from many distinct groups. Most are religious with many different backgrounds, and a minority of the groups are secular. The movement is hardly united; rather, the opposition is extremely fragmented. Major General Robert Mood has also indicated that other parties from outside Syria are present in the country, and are contributing “to the spiral of violence in a very non-constructive way.” The car bombings are probably one indication of this. The origins of these other actors seem to be Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon. In addition, James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, testified back in February that al Qaeda-like extremists have infiltrated the opposition, and there does seem to be some support to this claim.
The Annan peace plan has become an important component within the conflict situation. The causes of its collapse are threefold: the armed opposition, the government, and outside intervention. The good news is that a report by the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights informs that violence lessened by 36% while the plan was in operation, and it continued to drop in the subsequent months while the plan was still in effect. However also during this same period, the number of government soldiers that were killed increased. While both sides have undoubtedly violated Annan’s peace plan, hints of a way forward remain (as indicated by the report). If there is to be progress, negotiations should not be dismissed as frivolous and must continue. Having said that, one of the main obstacles to a negotiated peace settlement has been outside interference, increasingly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other gulf nations (with US coordination) through the supply of arms and funding towards armed opposition groups. As Kofi Annan points out, the
“Armed opposition groups have stated that they see no reason to respect cessation of hostilities. They have intensified their attacks, which will not serve the cause of the Syrian people. And the situation is made more complex and deadly by a series of bombings — some of which are indicative of the presence of a third actor.”
It is quite clear that foreign intervention is exacerbating the situation (not surprising), and if it leads to a violent overthrow of the government, it will not only devastate Syrians with a civil war but will also harm a great deal of the Middle East region. As it happens, fear of a full out civil war seems to be the reason that 55% of Syrians inside the country expressed they wanted Bashar al-Assad to stay as president, with the added proviso of future elections (January released poll).
While it is true that President Assad is a heinous president, that fact still does not justify violently overthrowing him, for I can think of many American presidents that have killed many more lives than him. The only way forward is to use the two tools that states historically seem to be averse to: diplomacy and negotiations. Only then will we be moving in the right direction.