Monday, 4 June 2012

The Crisis in Syria

by Anna Bazley
Burying the victims of the Houla massacre, in a mass grave
Ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the citizens of Syria have protested against their government. The self-immolation of Hasan Ali Akleh on 26th January 2011, in a mirror of a similar incident that ignited demonstrations in Tunisia, is identified as the inception of the protests. Yet nearly seventeen months on and the Syrian resistance continues to fight a fierce and bloody struggle against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, unlike the protests in Mubarak’s Egypt, Ben Ali’s Tunisia and even Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, all of which have seen their respective dictators banished. Assad, however, remains, shielded from the wrath of the UN Security Council by the vetoes of his allies Russia and China, and from the anger of his own people by his security forces.
Syrian Opposition poster
The horrific Housa Massacre of 25th May 2012, including the killing of 32 young children, represents the worst excesses of Assad’s army so far. Protests have been occurring inside Syria every Friday, with mass mobilisation in many of the key cities. Though state media blames ‘al-Qaeda’affiliated groups for the killings in the city, claiming a death total of 17, the Syrian National Council (a loose coalition of opposition groups) not only blames the Government, its forces and associated militias for the deaths but also estimates the total at a far greater number --- at least 110.Throughout the week since the Housa Massacre, between 20 and 90 civilians per day have been killed in cities and districts all over Syria.
Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations and now sent as Special Envoy to attain peace in Syria, has cautioned that the conflict risks slipping into all-out sectarian war, if action is not taken. Annan, who has met with President Assad and with members of the Arab League, which is working with the United Nations on so-far unsuccessful attempts to end the conflict. The UN and Arab League have co-authored a six point plan in response to the crisis (details below).
As far as progress regarding the plan is concerned, a ceasefire was declared for 12th April 2012, an agreement which, as of 1st May, the UN describes as ‘violated by both sides’. Though Assad has verbally supported the peace plan, the brutal actions of the Syrian Government and its security forces demonstrate his true attitude towards a ceasefire, although it could be argued that the rebels have been equally hypocritical in claiming support for the peace plan. Annan left Damascus, where he had met with Mr Assad, on Thursday and has since warned that the time for a peace plan is nearing an end. Meanwhile many commentators have voiced concerns over the plan, with The Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Julian Borger, commenting that the plan ‘echoes past failures in Bosnia and Rwanda’; by being too accommodating, Borger charges, Annan has created a lose-lose situation, where both the UN Security Council and the Syrian Government are refusing to act.
Assad and Putin
Navi Pillay, the UN High Comissioner for Human Rights , has stated that the Houla Massacre may be considered a ‘crime against humanity’ and issued a stark warning to Bashar Al-Assad and leading Syrian officials that, as a result, they would not be granted amnesty. Francois Hollande, the new French President, has said that military intervention cannot be ruled out, and indeed pressure for a greater UN peace-keeping force in the country is mounting. However, Russia has refused to add its voice even to the resolution offering only moral condemnation for the crimes of the Houla Massacre, dismissing the resolution as unbalanced. Tied to Damascus by key defence strategy, including arms sales and a rejection of a US-dominated world order, Moscow has been the most vocal supporter of Assad’s regime. As an ally, Vladimir Putin has promised to push the Syrian government to end the violence; speaking in Germany, Mr Putin reaffirmed his desire for a political solution, saying ‘It requires a certain professionalism and patience’. However, with Russia echoing the official Syrian line that the Houla Massacre was in fact a rebel plot, intended to thwart any political solution, in direct contradiction to the official position of the United Nations, it seems that co-operation within the UN Security Council could be a long way off.
It would seem, then, that the future of Syria lies with Assad, or perhaps even with the leaders of the country’s security forces. Were leaders of Syria's governmental armed forces to defect, as occurred in Libya, the regime may well be forced to stand down, as it appears that the majority of the Syrian population supports the rebels. At present, it looks as if the role of the UN will become entirely secondary to internal developments within Syria itself, the international organization rendered almost completely ineffective by divisions within the UN organisation and the international community.

Details of the UN/Arab League 6-point plan:
(1) commit to work with the Envoy in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people, and, to this end, commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy;
(2) commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country.To this end, the Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.
As these actions are being taken on the ground, the Syrian government should work with the Envoy to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism.Similar commitments would be sought by the Envoy from the opposition and all relevant elements to stop the fighting and work with him to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism;
(3) ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and to this end, as immediate steps, to accept and implement a daily two hour humanitarian pause and to coordinate exact time and modalities of the daily pause through an efficient mechanism, including at local level;
(4) intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities, provide without delay through appropriate channels a list of all places in which such persons are being detained, immediately begin organizing access to such locations and through appropriate channels respond promptly to all written requests for information, access or release regarding such persons;
(5) ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them;
(6) respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.

Read Claire Stephens' account of the Syrian situation back in March:


  1. In 2011, Russia sold nearly $1 billion in arms to Assad's government. Governments such as Putin's are as morally culpable as Assad's. Yet the international framework for punishing crimes against humanity currently focuses solely on the direct perpetrators not their (very active)accomplices.

  2. Interesting article from Rupert Cornwell, in The Independent, suggesting that Syria is becoming a battle ground not only between different Syrian factions but between Russia and the West. Cornwell writes:
    " Almost wherever you look, the United States and Russia are at odds. Over Syria, of course, where Washington accuses Russia of supplying arms to prop up Bashar al-Assad's odious regime, and of blocking any diplomatic initiative that might remove him. Then there's the US plan to build a missile defence system in former Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, which last month prompted the chief of Russia's military staff, General Nikolai Makarov, to warn of a pre-emptive first strike, no less, "if the situation worsens". Even at the Cold War's height, Russian commanders rarely talked like that. On Iran too (the threat that the missile defence system is intended to counter) Washington suspects Moscow is less than wholly committed to the cause.

    And all this against the background of what's happening in Russia itself: the cynical deal that returned Putin to the presidency in May, his takeover of the media, the rampant corruption and lawlessness, the rigged elections and creeping destruction of the party system, the persecution of the opposition, and the portrayal of the US as the source of most evils of this planet."

    Read the whole article at:


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