“There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.” – Bob Dylan
As the dawn breaks over the Levant, clashes rage in southern Damascus. Troops loyal to strongman Bashar al-Assad exchanged mortar fire with rebels, sending plumes of smoke and dust into the air. Syrian opposition troops captured the Hamdan military airbase near the Iraqi border prompting retaliatory air strikes by regime forces. Meanwhile, the Salahadeen district in Aleppo is eerily quiet, now a shattered ghost town. All the inhabitants have now fled — or else are dead. Welcome to Syria as another bloody day dawns over the eastern Mediterranean.
Syrian shockwaves continue to radiate across the Atlantic, breaking at the Halifax International Security Forum. Kevin Newman, CTV News anchor, is the moderator of a plenary session entitled “Syria’s Terror, the Middle East’s Tragedy.” Capturing the mood of deepening frustration Newman begins the session by intoning Bob Dylan’s song, All Along the Watchtower — “There must be some way out of here …”
It’s no exaggeration to say that the events in Syria dominate the foreground or lurk in the background of almost every event at the Forum; speaker after speaker touch on it almost every plenary session. Arab-Canadian journalist and peace advocate Afra Jalabi, who was herself born in Damascus, tries to place the current events in a historical context, starting with the insurgency and revolts of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when perhaps as many as 30,000 people were massacred in Hama in February, 1982 and how the resentments and injustices of that time simmered and burned for decades before erupting during the Arab Spring in early 2011. In the almost two years that it took for this initially modest and peaceful protest to escalate to a full-fledged civil war, Jalabi says “The democracy movement, the pro-human rights movement, in Syria feels abandoned, not just now but over the past decade.”
Jalabi emphasized that many Syrians have started to compare the situation in their country to that of Bosnia where world powers and the United Nations dithered, vacillated, and sat on their hands for months on end as the situation in the country and for civilians continued to deteriorate. Despite the paralysis of the United Nations, and the incredible suffering that has been inflicted on the country by the forces of Bashar al-Assad — between 40,000-50,000 people having been killed, about half of which were civilians; 1.2 million have been internally displaced in the country; and over 436,000 have fled and have become refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon –- the momentum has started to shift to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The arms supply to the FSA is increasingly coming from within, as more and more troops of the Syrian Army defect to join the rebel forces. Bolstered by more personnel and arms, the FSA is controlling more and more Syrian territory and is winning more battles with the government forces. Now that many Syrian opposition groups have agreed to form a unified coalition, the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution, in meetings in Doha earlier this month, and this coalition has received diplomatic recognition from Britain, France, the European Union, Turkey, and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), the diplomatic tide is clearly turning to favour the Syrian opposition forces.
Cengiz Candar, a journalist with Radikal Daily in Turkey, was emphatic that the situation in Syria has changed to such a dramatic degree that “One cannot roll back the film to March 14, 2011 (when the present conflict began). A catastrophe has fallen on the country. The past state of Syria that we knew is no more. The regime cannot control almost 70 per cent of the countryside. The days of the Assad regime have ended. The paradox is that the regime is still in place in Damascus.”
Candar was highly critical of Vladimir Putin and Russia for continually derailing prospective measures by the United Nations: “Russia by neutralizing the Security Council has made the entire United Nations dysfunctional.” In Candar’s view, even the purported peace missions of the United Nations to Syria are completely pointless: “The initiatives of both UN missions, those of Kofi Annan and Lakhtar Brahimi, are doomed to failure, because the starting point of both are to legitimize the regime of Assad, whereas the reality is the legitimacy of the regime is finished.”
Raghida Dergham, the diplomatic correspondent for Al Hayat, was equally blunt in her assessment of the Syrian situation: “An axis has formed, make no mistake about it. It includes Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and to a lesser degree China. The survival of the Syrian regime is essential for the regime in Iran. It provides Iran with their channel of communication with Hezbollah and their influence in Lebanon. If Syria falls it could break the backbone of Iran.”
Dergham was asked what it might take for Russia to change its position on Syria: “Russia is not going to change its position unless there is an agreement between the Americans and the Russians. Putin has recently said some things that indicate a more flexible position but Lavrov (the Russian foreign minister) has not changed his position on Syria at all. Putin has succeeded in neutralizing the UN Security Council. It’s going to take NATO to break the stalemate. As far as I am concerned, if the Russians want to continue to have their base in Tartus, let them have it.”
Dergham felt that Assad had been lucky these past few months that an election campaign had been in progress in the United States. The politics of that had allowed both parties and both candidates to hide behind one another and avoid taking action. However, that pre-election era is now over.
Both Dergham and Jalabi particularly emphasized the importance of women in the Syrian revolution to date. Jalabi pointed out that the participation of women in the Syrian National Council had increased and that women had been and continue to play an important role in the political processes as well as the activity on the ground. Referring to the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan revolutions of the Arab Spring, Derham said, “Once revolutions take power, women begin to get marginalized. Also the secularists get marginalized. All of a sudden it becomes OK to marginalize women’s rights. The role of women must become a national security issue.”
One commentator from the audience pointed out that the single most important determinate of the security of a people is not the economic level of the country, not the state of democratic development, and not even the development of governance structures, but the that women are treated equally. If we are serious in our concern about strengthening security for the people of the world, a principle focus needs to be the role of women and their personal and political security. When women can be educated, play an equitable role in the workforce, and participate in the political, social, and governance structures of a country without fear of personal or political violence, then very substantial progress has been made in the overall security for everyone in that society. “What can we do to signal support to the women of Syria?” asked the questioner.
Finally Safeen Muhsin Dizayee of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (in Iraq), observed the Syrian situation through the lens of the Kurdish inhabitants of Syria, and the impact of the civil war and political changes on the Kurdish people of the region (in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey). Over the past year and a half over 40,000 Syrian Kurds have fled the country and have become refugees in various neighbouring states. There is, understandably, an interest and concern for these people amongst their fellow Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq maintains high level contacts and communications with the 15 or 16 Kurdish political groupings inside Syria to monitor the situation. There is a very great degree of concern on the part of the KDP in terms of the great number of lost lives of Syrian citizens and the enormous damage to the infrastructure of the country. The KDP welcomes the recent events in Doha (the formation of the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution), which, Dizayee felt could either be regarded as a premature birth (i.e., not all of the Syrian opposition groups are included) or a late delivery (i.e., two years after such a common front should have been established).
No one at the Halifax International Security Forum proffered any magic formula for how “we get out of here” (or at least, any that they were publicly sharing), however, it was clear that the resolution of this issue was at the nexus of a large number of local, regional, and geo-political issues. The survival of the Assad regime appears critical to the Iranian leadership, and the Russians (for a variety of geo-strategic reasons, including their vast military base in Tartus), and they appear ready to stonewall any attempts at the United Nations to address the crisis. Whether the re-elected Obama administration is able to make any progress on this file with the Russians is completely unclear. The intersecting Sunni-Shite-Alawite balance, the role of women in the revolution and subsequent Syrian society are outstanding issues for which there is as yet no clear resolution. What is clear, however, is the suffering of the Syrian people and the potential for this conflict to ignite many regional and international issues. In the words of Raghida Dergham, “Can the word ‘contained escalation’ even apply to this powder-keg region (i.e., the Middle East)?”
“But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.” – Bob Dylan