(by W. Andy Knight)
On 6 September 2013, the CARICOM Secretariat issued a press statement on the situation in Syria. In that statement, the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) called on the international community to make a “valiant effort” to help parties involved in the two year civil conflict in Syria to reach a “negotiated political settlement”. This came on the heels of criticism that Caribbean countries were not taking a collective position on the Syrian conflict and ought to.
Professor Brian Meeks of The University of the West Indies had implored the leaders of the Caribbean region to adopt a common position on the situation in Syria and to endorse the United Nations’ view that a US military intervention should be eschewed.
The hope expressed in the CARICOM statement is certainly desirable. A negotiated settlement is preferred to trying to settle the conflict using military means. Already, over 115,000 people have been killed in Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, this war has taken the lives of 41,000 civilians, including 6,000 children and 4,000 women. Over 2 million Syrians are now refugees and displaced persons. Furthermore, chemical weapons have been utilised in this civil in contravention of the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention.
This is a horrific, brutal and bloody conflict in which the many factions are committing major atrocities. Core crimes, which are detailed in the Rome Statute which brought into being the International Criminal Court (ICC), are being committed by both government forces and the many opposition groups that are trying to overthrow the Assad regime. When this war is over, the International Criminal Court should investigate the war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed and indict and bring to trial those responsible.
So the call by CARICOM for a valiant international effort to resolve the Syrian crisis ought to be applauded. The hope behind this statement is similar to what the United Nations Secretary General has expressed, i.e. that somehow this situation should be resolved through dialogue, mediation and conciliation rather than through the recourse to the use of military force, as the United States had threatened. The problem with military intervention, even for humanitarian purposes, is that, more often than not, it puts those in need of protection at greater risk of harm and suffering.
But such a motherhood and apple pie statement belies the complexity of the conflict in Syria. Not all conflicts can be resolved using diplomatic means. The CARICOM statement assumes that the Government of Syria and the Opposition Forces can be coaxed into sitting down at a bargaining table and negotiating a settlement that would be acceptable to both sides and ultimately bring the conflict to an end. The problem with this assumption is multifold.
First, neither the Syrian Government nor the Opposition Forces are monolithic. While the Assad regime in peacetime was able to hold together various factions in the government – Alawite and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, Kurds and Arab, keeping this multicultural melting pot together during times of civil war is much more difficult. And, the Opposition Forces are far from uniform in their opposition to the government.
The Syrian political opposition is a fractious force with competing interests and divergent ideologies. This opposition is comprised of the Syrian National Council, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the National Coordination Body for the Force of Democratic Change, Building the Syrian State Movement, and a number of Jihadi factions – some linked to al Qaeda.
Second, both the Syrian Government and the many opposition groups are supported by outside interests. It is clear that Russia supports the Assad regime, as does Iran and Hezbollah. But the opposition forces have several different backers – The US supports some of the more moderate opposition groups, but others are supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The competition between the foreign interests involved in this conflict makes the situation in Syria even more complex and more difficult to be resolved using diplomatic means.
Third, there might have been a chance that the Assad regime would be willing to go to the bargaining table when it was being weakened by the various opposition forces. But of late, the forces loyal to Assad have been gaining ground and the government is now gaining in strength as one rebel stronghold after another is being captured and brought under the government’s control. If this trend continues, Assad’s position would be strengthened to the point where he might not want to make any concessions to the opposition. The weakened opposition might therefore prefer to continue the armed struggle rather than take part in a negotiated settlement that would see Assad remain in office.
Basically, it is easy to express the hope that the international community should try to bring this brutal conflict in Syria to an end using diplomatic means. But the devil is always in the details. The conditions in that country may not be ripe for a negotiated settlement. It is important that CARICOM leaders base their collective foreign policy statements on much deeper analysis than what we have seen to date.