Daily Maverick Syria

Syria: The Security Council and the Responsibility to Protect

Daily Maverick, 28 May 2012 – 

The United Nations observers in Syria told the Security Council on Sunday that 116 people were killed. More were wounded – most of them were victims of shelling, others of gunshots.  And yet, as outrage and despair grows, any kind of intervention seems unlikely. This is Nato’s fault, I argue.

At least 116 people were killed in the Syrian town of Houla on Friday. Many of them were children. Another 300 people were left injured. Establishing what exactly happened, or who exactly is responsible is extremely difficult. The Syrian opposition blames the Syrian government. The Syrian government denies it is responsible. The West admonishes the Syrian government and Russia blames Al-Qaeda. Depending on which side of this conflict your sympathies lie, you will find someone to blame in this noise.

And while blame must certainly be apportioned here, it is foolish for you or I to attempt to use these 116 deaths to advance any side of this conflict. It does not matter to whom these 116 people pledged their allegiances in the ongoing war for Syria, what happened in Houla was a massacre.

It is in the name of international law that the United Nations Security Council convened an urgent meeting on Sunday night. Great Britain and France, bless their hearts, proposed the Security Council issue a statement saying say that the “indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force” against civilians was in “flagrant violation” of international law, UN resolutions and the Syrian government’s own commitment to a ceasefire. In the clamour to express adequate horror at the Houla massacre, the Security Council can offer only words blunted by its own conflicting interests.

For over a year now, one question has dogged protests in the Arab world. “Where is the US?” or enunciated in more politically correct terms, “Where is the international community?” The opinion of said international community is the word of the Security Council, ever ready to express moral indignation.

Last week, human rights group Amnesty International lambasted the Security Council for its failure to actually influence a peaceful outcome in Syria – or anywhere else in the world really. “The failure of the UN Security Council to take leadership has made the body look increasingly unfit for purpose,” the rights group said.

“A failure to intervene in Sri Lanka and inaction over crimes against humanity in Syria – one of Russia’s main customers for arms – left the UN Security Council looking redundant as a guardian of global peace,” Amnesty alleged.

In a sentiment chorused by many others the world over, Amnesty believes that Russia’s obstructionist stance in the Security Council over Syria is directly attributed to Moscow’s bottom line: Syria has been a convenient receptacle of Russian arms. Russia, as well as China, with some variable assistance from the likes of South Africa, blocked various Security Council attempts to enforce sanctions against Syria.

Even on Sunday, Russia sought to amend the statement proposed by Britain and France, pushing for references to “a third party” in the statement, implying of course that Al-Qaeda may be the real culprits.

After due deliberations on the wording of the statement, the Security Council finally released its missive condemning the “killings” without blaming anyone. And yet every time there has been a clamour of activity surrounding Syria, the same debate ensues and we watch the final wording of a statement or blunted resolution to find out which version of events holds more clout.

The international community has, after all, been charged with the “responsibility to protect” or, as it has become known, “R2P”.

The UN adopted the principle of R2P back in 2005 and has been chiselling away at it ever since. R2P was intended to be the first piece in a new international legal framework for stopping war crimes after a century of ad hoc humanitarianism. At its core R2P holds that when a sovereign state fails to prevent atrocities, foreign governments may muscle their way in to stop them. The do-gooders of the world, aka human-rights advocates, say it saves lives.

Others remain unconvinced. Detractors see the thrust of R2P as a handy cover-up for tacit imperialism. Yet others see R2P as nothing more than an incentive to kill because, even if a massacre has not already happened, an unscrupulous warlord may be tempted to engineer one against his own people to curry the support of the international community.

Much of the reporting of Syrian conflict has been clouded by the conflicting versions of events proffered by Assad’s lackeys on one hand, and the various guises of the Syrian opposition on the other. The Houla massacre has not been untouched by the propaganda war that to some degree takes strength from the noble principles of R2P.

At least one photograph purported to show a child skipping over rows of dead bodies in Houla on Saturday has been found to actually have been a photograph of bodies exhumed in Iraq in 2003. In the words of the photographer, Marco Di Lauro: “Today Sunday May 27 at 0700am London time the attached image which I took in Al Mussayyib in Iraq on March 27, 2003 […]was front page on BBC web site illustrating the massacre that happen [sic] in Houla the Syrian town and the caption and the web site was stating that the images was showing the bodies of all the people that have been killed in the massacre and that the image was received by the BBC by an unknown activist. Somebody is using my images as a propaganda against the Syrian government to prove the massacre.”

Much of the problem with understanding what exactly is happening on Syria is derived from the government’s refusal to allow journalists into the country to report freely. Of course this does not justify the poor standards of reporting displayed throughout this conflict but it does also explain the difficulty we have to understand what actually happened in Houla.

Even the official death count in Houla, repeated as it was by the United Nations, is the word of the Free Syrian Army. Other accounts provide a conflicting number of dead. What we do know, however, is that a great number of people were killed in Houla last weekend. The Syrian government denies its culpability. It has not denied that it did happen. On that point at least there is a harmony in the narrative.

A massacre was perpetrated in Houla on Friday.

Yet what exactly is the role of the international community in response to this massacre? Further sanctions? So far the sanctions in place have strangled the Syrian economy but it’s fallen short of actually stemming the flow of arms into Syria. Is it a no-fly zone à la Libya that we are after then?

Lest we forget, the international intervention in Libya was justified by the lofty principles of R2P. It was the first real-world test of these new rules for humanitarian intervention and it proved to have dismal consequences. Though Russia certainly acts with self-interest in its approach to Syria in the Security Council, the reluctance that both Russia and China have shown is also a consequence of Nato’s abuse of the UN mandate of R2P in Libya last year.

Nato went from its stated objective of protecting the civilian population to overthrowing the Gaddafi regime. It is Nato that has destroyed the future chances of legally using R2P with a Security Council mandate. DM

Daily Maverick Syria

Syrian conflict threatens to spill over into Lebanon

Daily Maverick, 22 May 2012-

Kofi Annan’s grand plan to end the conflict in Syria has yielded peace in name alone. As Syria continues to sink further into civil war, the conflict is starting to spread across the border into Lebanon, where thousands of Syrians live. But the two countries have a complicated relationship.

In a statement released to the media after UN secretary-general Ban ki-Moon’stête-à-tête with new French President Francois Hollande on the sidelines of the Nato summit in Chicago, Ban said he was, “extremely troubled about the risk of an all-out civil war (in Syria) and was concerned about the outbreak of related violence in Lebanon.”

But Ban’s concerns are not backed by a capacity to act. Not only has the United Nations been unable to achieve actual peace in Syria, despite both the Syrian government and its dissidents committing to it, the conflict has now outstripped Syria’s borders.

On Monday, there were protracted overnight street battles in Beirut between groups that support and oppose Syria’s rulers. The official National News Agency reported two people killed and at least 18 injured in fighting between Sunni Muslim gunmen opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad and supporters of the pro-Syrian Arab Movement Party in the majority Sunni neighbourhood near the Beirut Arab University.

The clashes came hours after a Sunni cleric, Sheik Ahmed Abdel Wahed, a vocal supporter of the uprising against Assad, was shot dead at an army checkpoint in northern Lebanon on Sunday.

As news of Abdel Wahed’s death spread, spontaneous protests erupted in the north of the country. Protestors blocked roads with burning tyres and soon the protest had spread to Beirut, where tyres burned in several neighbourhoods and eventually transformed into deadly clashes.

While the situation in Beirut eased later on Monday, tensions in the north of the country remained high as Abdel Wahed was laid to rest. Thousands of mourners participated in his funeral as gunmen fired in the air – purported to be a sign of mourning. The funeral soon turned into an anti-Assad rally amid chants of “Down with Bashar” as mourners accused the Syrian president of forcing his problems on to the Lebanese people.

An investigation has been reportedly launched into Abdel Wahed’s death and Lebanese officials, echoed by religious leaders, have all called for calm.

The violence in Beirut comes a week after Syria-linked violence between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli left at least eight people dead and dozens more injured. The fighting erupted shortly after the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, an outspoken critic of Assad.

Lebanon remains sharply divided along sectarian lines and the Syrian crisis on the street and politically has served to exemplify these differences. Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim group, and their factions back Assad, who himself hails from the Shiite-related Alawite sect.

The majority Sunni groups, however, want to see his regime ousted.

Among these divisions, it is the Lebanese army that is perceived to be above the sectarian divisions. Some Lebanese credit the army for holding the country together in a semblance of national unity. But after the killing of Abdel Wahed the army has been accused of taking sides. If they are to prevent another Lebanese civil war, the army generals will have to maintain at the very least a perception of the country’s neutrality and dedication to Lebanon’s integrity.

Lebanon has a rather complicated relationship with Syria. After 29 years of occupation, Syria was forced out in April 2005. The results of a preliminary UN investigation into the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri implicated several top officials in the Syrian government.

Following the preliminary report, the UN passed a resolution requiring full co-operation from Damascus into the murder investigation. And though Syria has officially withdrawn from Lebanon, Assad has continued to exert political influence with the help of an extensive spy network that reportedly infiltrated every corner of the country.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads a government formed by the so-called March 8 bloc – a coalition of Sunnis, the Christian party the Free Patriotic Movement of Michael Aoun, the Druze of Walid Jumblatt, and the Shia parties Amal and Hezbollah. The latter take a pro-Syrian position while Mikati himself, although Sunni, has close relations with the Syrian regime, too.

When asked about his ties to Assad in an interview with Newsweek in August, Mikati said, “Yes, we were friends. Unfortunately, now he’s so busy. [I haven’t had] the chance to see him or even talk to him.”

But the Syrian government certainly doesn’t appear to have much faith in its relationship with Mikati anymore. Last week, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja’afari, sent a letter to Ban and the UN Security Council accusing some Lebanese factions of “incubating” al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, assisting them to take root along the Syrian border in order to launch attacks on Syria.

In the UN Security Council last year, Lebanon sought to underline the significance of Syria’s conflict on the fragile peace in Lebanon. The current chaos in northern Lebanon certainly attests to that. These clashes mark the most serious violence in Lebanon since May 2008, when clashes erupted between Sunnis and Shi’ites, an incident which brought the country to the brink of civil war.

This flare-up can, however, be stopped with a great deal of effort and political will. But it could as well flare up again, drawing the country into a civil war yet again. Should Hezbollah be drawn into the conflict, further escalating it with an attack against Israel, it could be enough of an excuse for an Israeli attack on Iran, potentially bringing the entire region to the precipice of a very, very serious conflict. DM

Daily Maverick Syria

Heat turns on Syrian opposition as UN backs Annan peace plan

Daily Maverick, 23 March 2012- 

In a rare moment of global consensus on Syria, the United Nations Security Council lent its full support to Kofi Annan’s plan to restore peace to Syria. Unlike previous attempts by the international community to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria, this statement is a better reflection of the tenuous balance of power in Syria. 

The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday approved a “presidential statement” threatening Syria with unspecified “further steps” if international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace proposal is rejected. In a rare moment of global consensus on Syria, the French-drafted document lends “full support” to Annan’s efforts to bring an “immediate end to all violence and human rights violations” in Syria.

While the Security Council statement lacks the legal force of a resolution, it reflects significant progress in strained diplomatic efforts to reach a solution to the Syrian crisis that has pitted the Arab League and Western states against Russia and China. The Russians had taken issue with previous proposed resolutions for calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down, believing such calls to be a covert measure by the international community to influence regime change in Syria. And while Russian agreement to the presidential statement may well signal a shift in Russian relations with Syria, the statement does not call for al-Assad to step down.

Previous attempts at a crafting a political solution to the crisis began with a demand for al-Assad to step down immediately and hand over power to a unity government. The call for al-Assad to step down has been repeatedly issued by Western nations, the Arab League and the Syrian opposition in its various forms and guises. This statement stresses the need for political transition in Syria without issuing a demand for al-Assad to relinquish power. The statement does demand a cessation of the regime’s military operations against opposition strongholds but its failure to call on al-Assad to step down may pose more of a challenge to the Syrian opposition than it does for al-Assad.

The Security Council statement calls for both the regime’s forces and the armed opposition groups to accept a UN-supervised ceasefire, allowing for daily pauses for humanitarian assistance to reach restive regions. But crucially, the statement calls for both “the Syrian government and opposition to work in good faith with the Envoy [Annan] towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis” by engaging “in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people”. This requirement for the opposition to negotiate with the regime is set to expose the deep divisions within the Syrian opposition.

The UN statement is yet to enforce any change in Syria itself. Reports of heavy clashes between Syrian forces and the opposition Free Syrian Army continued unabated on Thursday but the statement is successful in reflecting a better understanding of the balance of power on the ground. Al-Assad has survived peaceful protests against his rule; he has so far managed to withstand the threat of an armed insurrection as well.

The brutality of the Syrian government response to dissent in the last year has been well documented. Yes, to some extent it has even been spuriously documented. But al-Assad has himself acknowledged that his armed forces made grave mistakes in its response to the uprising. Many believe that it is the government military crackdown that pushed a significant portion of the Syrian opposition to take up arms against the regime.

It’s now the turn of the Syrian opposition forces to face accusations of acts as ruthless as those perpetrated against them. In an open letter to the nominal political and military leaders of the Syrian opposition, Human Rights Watch (HRW) this week charged factions of the Syrian opposition with “gross human-rights abuses”, including kidnappings, torture and executions of security personnel and civilians —mirroring the charges the United Nations and various activist groups have levelled against al-Assad’s security forces.

Leaders of Syrian opposition groups should condemn and forbid their members from carrying out abuses, HRW said. Significantly, evidence garnered by HRW suggests that the battle between the regime and the opposition has assumed the politics of sectarianism. The New York based human rights watchdog found certain armed attacks by opposition groups were motivated by anti-Shia or anti-Alawite sentiments arising from the association of these communities with government policies.

Critics of the international response to the Syrian crisis believe that these failings of the Syrian opposition are in fact an indictment of the lack a coherent response from the United Nations Security Council. The lack of an international intervention in the violence is believed to have gravely compounded the Syrian crisis. HRW however believes the actions of the Syrian armed forces do not condone the behaviour of the Syrian opposition. “The Syrian government’s brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. Syrian rebels have justified their behaviour with harrowing tales of the abuse they’ve seen meted out by Syrian forces. “Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap, or execute under any circumstances.”

HRW have demanded the leadership of the Syrian opposition condemn these human rights violations. For its part the Syrian National Council (SNC), one manifestation of the Syrian opposition, reacted to the HRW report by saying it “deplores the reported incidents of human rights violations by armed opposition groups”. A representative of the Free Syrian however is reported to have said of the HRW report, “A few incidents are a drop in a bucket in comparison to what the regime is committing.” It is this discord between the SNC and the Free Syrian Army that may prove the greatest obstacle to negotiations and indeed lasting peace. Earlier this month the SNC created a military bureau to liaise with, unify and supervise armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army, the group said, but various attempts at unification have so far proven futile.

Driven by suspicion of shabeeha, or regime sympathisers, facets of the Syrian opposition have shown scant respect for the niceties of human rights. All is fair in love and war, or so they say. Consensus in the Security Council may win little change on the ground in Syria but will prove a significant challenge to the Syrian opposition. DM