Gazzola Monica

How the international community is missing the humanitarian focus on Syria [16/04/2012]

Dictatorship, monarchy, human rights violations, corruption, economic decline, unemployment and extreme poverty. These are the key words to understand the roots of the so-called Arab Spring, and those are the demands of the Syrian people as well. Needless to say, every country has been reacting differently, developing its own “Spring”. Yet, the existence of similarities cannot be denied, and this should help to envisage possible future scenarios.

In my opinion, political demands have been playing a paramount role, bigger than economic grievances. Syrian people have lived under a state of emergency since 1962, when emergency law were enacted. Under the justification of continuous wars against Israel and threats of domestic terrorism, the majority of constitutional rights were suspended. This is a common practice: Egypt imposed for the first time the emergency law in 1967, and Tunisia since the beginning of the uprisings. Bahrain and Yemen are included in the same category. Basically, the emergency law aims to prevent demonstrations and legitimate crackdown on protesters, by suspending the Constitution, allowing censorship and detentions without judicial control. Under international human rights law, any suspension must be temporary, exceptional and proportionate, plus basic rights are never to be suspended. Unfortunately, such suspensions are nearly impossible to regulate, because every country can decide when waivers are necessary and provides its own justification. On 26 January 2011 a case of self immolation triggered the protests in Syria: they claimed for political reforms and the reinstatement of civil rights and, subsequently, the end of the state of emergency, which has allowed the Baathist regime to rule since 1963. The largest protests started in mid March 2011, with a wave of killings and arrests. From that moment on, the Government undertook military operations as response.

What I consider peculiar in the current Syrian situation, is the escalation of violence and the consequent deployment of troops. The Government is not only repressing protesters, and the opposition is not simply supporting them or responding to crackdowns. Some 17.000 defectors currently compose the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that has found shelter in neighboring Turkey. Turkey is not just “hosting” the FSA, but it is providing it with a substantial support (including bodyguards to protect its leader Ryad Assad, who, for the records, is not a relative of President Assad). The FSA is strongly responding to the regime's attacks, considering the kind of operations and the killings perpetrated against governmental police. Also, they are quite open to a military intervention by the international community (unlike the Syrian National Council, SNC).

What about the possibility of the internationalization of the conflict? Syria is a particular sensitive country in geo-political terms. Turkey is not the only state involved in this situation. Arms and Sunni Muslim fighters are entering into Syria from Iraq to contribute to the uprisings. Strict ties have been always existed between the Iraqi provinces of Anbar and Ninawa with the Syrian neighbours, and they are even getting tighter, as proved by the increase in the cost of weapons smuggled into country. Additionally, Al-Qaeda has a strong presence in Iraq: Al-Zawahiri has called Turkish, Iraqi, Lebanese and Jordan Muslim to support Syrian rebels (although the limited response received). On his side, Assad can count on several allies as well; he is reportedly waiting for 15.000 Iranian troops, which should not be a surprise given the mutual military assistance deal with Teheran. Additionally, the Chinese and the Russian veto on UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions (4 October 2011 and 4 February 2012) is well known. Lastly, the US are indirect allies: due to the economic crisis, it is extremely difficult for them to lead a coalition of willing against Assad. Given the complicated scenario, a military intervention led by one or more countries is, fortunately, very unlikely to happen. And, of course, it would trigger a much more dangerous international conflict.

Some experts argue that the international community is just waiting for the situation to deteriorate, in order to have a reason to intervene, given the fact that with the Resolution 12 February 2012 the Arab League has called for Arab States to politically and materially support the opposition, and because weapons and fighters are already entering into Syria from Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.

However, this would appear neither desirable, nor possible. First of all, we have to analyse how the regime is supported, both nationally and internationally. Assad is backed by religious and ethnic minorities, scared by Sunnis’ power in case Assad falls (the President belongs to the Alawites, who derive from the Shi'a). There is also a considerable minority of Kurds, who are suspicious about the Turkish support to the opposition and its possible influence in the country if Assad is ousted. Lastly, a number of Palestinian refugees are grateful for their status given by the Regime. Why don't the SNC and the FSA make deals with them or at least reassure them publicly for their respective concerns? In fact, many analysts agree that the main internal problem is the fragmentation of the opposition, which constitutes an enormous strength for Assad, and a serious question mark for the international community (in terms of future business and political partner). At the international level, the situation is also rather complex. Moscow does not intend to lose the base of Tartus in the Mediterranean, therefore it would rather push for an internal transition within the current Regime. Same principle applies: why cannot Western diplomacy reassure the Cremlin on this point? Then, Al-Qaeda. Assad, similarly to other dictators before him, is playing the card of terrorism, in two directions: first of all, he assimilates some violent episodes occurred during the protest to jihadist plans. Secondly, Assad is trying to convince the international community that without his government, terrorism will take over Syria. It is just outrageous that the international community lets this unfunded phobia spread and support such ideas. In a nutshell, the challenge for Western diplomacy is to support the opposition in order to help it reach a critical mass, and to engage on active pressure on the regime. This could eventually push the loyalist army to revisit cost-benefit calculation to support the Regime (needless to underline the importance of the Army for a dictatorship).

As the violence and repression continued, the EU decided to introduce restrictive measures in order to increase pressure on al-Assad. In May, it suspended the draft Association Agreement and bilateral cooperation programs with the Syrian government. The European Investment Bank has also suspended all its loan operations and technical assistance to Syria. The EU is also working closely with several actors in the international community: with the League of Arab States (LAS) by providing technical support for its observation mission in Syria, with the UN, with the “Friends of the Syrian people” group, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council. With regard to its financial commitment, the EU (Commission and Member States) has already given more than EUR 8 million in humanitarian assistance, and is ready to increase that amount depending on need. “The Regime's repressive policy towards its population must be stopped” affirms Schams El-Ghoneimi, a political analyst working in a major humanitarian NGO. He explains me that those measures don't hurt the people more that they hurt the regime, given that the biggest part of the revenues are used to support the repression. Looking at the broader picture, the situation is so dire that the people would be ready to lose a dollar a day if the Regime lost a few too. Nevertheless, the EU is working with several actors in the international community and it has allocated more that EUR 8 million in humanitarian assistance.

Besides all political considerations, we must recall the humanitarian perspective. Human rights violations considered crimes against humanity are being committed in Syria, as stated in the 72-pages report of the UN Commission of Inquiry. So far, the figure of people killed has almost reached 10.000, and basically no humanitarian aid is being provided. The Government has allowed only observers of the Arab League, leaving outside the borders the Red Cross and other international missions. The problem is that under international law, there is no legal obligation on Syria to let them in. The UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos has recently visited the country after Assad gave her his consent, but she has no legal mandate to take initiatives, since the UN is not entitled to do anything. Yet, the situation is dire because of the increasing militarization. The Red Cross is calling for a two hours per day humanitarian pause, and no killing zones and humanitarian corridors have been asked. Given the effect that crackdowns have provoked on civilian population, those caused by a military intervention can be imagined. “After 1945, 90% of the victims are civilians, in every conflict, without exceptions” tells me Gino Strada, founder of the medical NGO Emergency, at the European Parliament.

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