Syria’s Crisis: A View From Behind the Conflict

Author ········· Kenza Yousfi
Published ······ Online, Dec 2012
Section ·······  Current Affairs

After a heavy snowfall weekend, I headed to Dr. Ahmed Rhazaoui’s office to talk about the Syrian crisis. Dr. Rhazaoui is a Moroccan professor and a former United Nations (UN) official, who worked at the UN for more than 30 years on issues of international development and conflict prevention. Dr. Rhazaoui served as a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative and UN Coordinator in half a dozen countries in Africa and the Middle East and as Director of the UN Office for West Africa. Prior to the Syrian conflict, Dr. Rhazaoui served as Head of the UNDP Office in Syria. In that capacity, he worked with the reform group surrounding President Bashar al-Assad, in an attempt to help open up the economy and push through the reform process that was under way since the mid-2000s. In this interview, Dr. Rhazaoui provides us with insights derived from his experience with regional politics and the UN system.

KY | The international response to Syria’s situation is ambiguous. The hostilities of both parties, the Free Syrian Army and the Assad clan, are increasing. Why isn’t there a clear response to the situation?

AR | The international response is complicated because there are many actors, different levels and different perceptions of the conflict. The West, led by the U.S. and European powers, together with their allies and friends in the Middle East, have concluded that the Assad regime must go. They are willing to help the opposition by providing them with weapons [in hopes of] toppl[ing] the regime. The one thing that they don’t really state clearly is what is the alternative once the regime is overthrown and Assad leaves? What kind of process they are going to put in to replace that regime? Right now the opposition has created a national coalition, which appears to be fairly representative of the Syrian factions, and that opposition is now recognised by a number of countries as being sufficiently representative. So presumably that would be the coalition that would lead the transition process towards a democratic political system after the president leaves.

This view is not shared by Russia, Iran, China and the opponents of the West who look at the conflict as a regional one. For them, Syria is being used as a proxy to weaken Iran. There is an axis of resistance that goes from Syria to Iran, [which] includes Russia and possibly China. However, China is a little less clear about its political position or agenda. So in that kind of view the fight will continue as long as Iran is the target of the Western powers. It has to do with Iran’s increasing power in the region and its nuclear capability. The West is determined, with the help of Israel, to make sure that Iran does not become a nuclear power and a threat in the region. I think this view is shortsighted. Iran is, by definition, [and] by its geographical position and its history, already a major regional power. There is nothing the Western powers can do about that. So physically and objectively Iran is a major power. They can only take certain measures to make sure it does not become a nuclear power within the next few years, but that is also questionable. Therefore, their fight is [a] losing battle in the long-term with respect to Iran. Their position with respect to Syria is influenced by how they view the regional conflict. Syria for them is just a pun in this global change in the geopolitical configuration of the region.

KY | And that’s why they cannot decide on military intervention?

AR | Military intervention is really problematic because nobody can predict the outcome. It could lead to the balkanisation of the region starting with Syria. And if it breaks up the way Yugoslavia did, the whole region will be on fire. Nobody wants that to happen. I think that is why everybody is very cautious about direct military intervention; once you start it, nobody knows how it will develop, how far it will go, and how far it will spread in the region. That’s why Western powers have been reluctant to give decisive military help to the opposition to accelerate the fall of the regime. They are afraid that if they escalate the conflict, it becomes uncontrollable.

KY | Isn’t it inevitable?

AR | We are already in a state of civil war in Syria. The question is, how much outside intervention can Western powers afford to give? If we take Libya, clearly the Western intervention was absolutely decisive. Without it, I doubt the opposition would have defeated Qaddafi. But in Syria, they can’t afford that kind of intervention. First of all, they need a UN Security Council resolution; Russia and China have learnt their lesson. They will not be misled again. Without the resolution, the U.S. and E.U. will have no legal basis that would justify a military intervention. Thus, they will have to go underground and provide various kinds of weapons to the opposition. We see now that the opposition is beginning to get its hands on various anti-aircraft weapons and beginning to shoot down helicopters and fighter jets. If this trend continues, there will be a definite shift in favour of the opposition.

KY | In the last meeting in Qatar, that gathered Syrian oppositions to forge unity, an overhauled opposition leadership gained international recognition. What do you think is the possibility for such an opposition to reach a diplomatic solution with the current political problems?

AR | The opposition has been stating in its declarations its willingness to work for a diplomatic solution provided Assad leaves power – for them this is non-negotiable. As long as he stays in power they will continue fighting, but if he accepts to leave, that will open the door for negotiations. The Assad regime and its supporters have exactly the same view in the opposite direction: Assad is here to stay. For them, that position is also non-negotiable. Although there had been signals from various supporters of Assad, even from Russia, suggesting that if they see an opening for a political solution they aren’t going to insist that he stays in power. And [Assad] himself has apparently indicated to one UN official last year, that he is willing to stay in power only until his term ends and he may not run for office for next elections if people don’t want him. So, he opened up that possibility, but he wants it to be done legally [and] not by force. That could be one way for a political solution.

KY | But there is no guarantee for opposition that the Baa’th party will not take over. Assad is known to be a puppet for the party.

AR | This raises a whole series of other issues. When I was posted in Syria three years ago, I was also convinced that Assad and his advisors, a small group of what I thought were reformers, actually wanted to open up the system economically and politically. But they were totally under the control of the Baa’th party, the Mukhabarat (secret police), security forces and the military. They couldn’t do anything without the approval of the party, and the security apparatus. The prevailing view at the time was that Assad’s intentions were good, that he was genuinely interested in reforming the system. The people I worked with as a UN official appeared to be serious about wanting to open up at least the economy; politically it is much more difficult. A lot of initiatives were taken for that purpose by inviting investors, supporting Syria in its candidacy for the International Trade Organisation, bringing a large number of Syrians from the diaspora to see where they can invest, reforming the banking system, doing all the things that are needed to make the economy more open and more competitive. That was going quite well, but I also realised that none of that was possible without the nod of the Baa’th party. The ministers I dealt with were always very concerned about what the party would think of whatever decision they make. And the same goes for the President. That’s why people got the impression that Assad and his wife were under the control of these forces that had no interest in changing the political or economic system. But after the conflict broke out, and in view of the various positions that Assad took over the past two years, it became clear that he is committed to fight it out to the end. He is not as much of a puppet as we thought. He has made declarations that were quite surprising; he has supported a level of violence that would have been unthinkable for the Assad we thought we knew.

KY | At this stage, we notice more of a regional mobilisation for a diplomatic solution, and the Arab League is trying to deal with the conflict, but it is not credibly succeeding. Why is it that at this critical juncture of the re-building of democratic mechanisms in the region that no clear action is taken?

AR | I am not sure about the Arab League strategy. They haven’t taken a clear position. They stress the need for a political solution--that is their official position. They have rejected the violence and expressed support for the opposition. But they are not clear about their strategy to reach a political solution. They simply took the diplomatic way out. Some members of the Arab League like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have taken a position against the regime, and are willing to do what is necessary to topple it. But the Arab League – as an institution – hasn’t done that. They are very careful. Only individual countries have done so; but even these countries are not necessarily the most powerful, with the exception of Saudi Arabia. Although they are the ones financing the armaments of the Syrian opposition, they haven’t succeeded in convincing the Arab League to come out against the Syrian regime. The countries constituting the Arab League are concerned with the problems of their own populations and how they react to the Arab Spring. They can’t come up with a clear stance on the Syrian conflict. Look at the supporters of the so-called democratic values in Syria, who are they? Saudi Arabia, Qatar: not exactly shining examples of democracy in the Middle East. So, there is a great deal of hypocrisy. And when it comes to conflict between values and interests, interests always prevail whether it is Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the E.U. or the U.S.

KY | Going back to the Syrian issue, as a UN civil servant, how do you evaluate the work of Al-akhdar Ibrahimi?

AR | First of all, Ibrahimi is a highly respected diplomat with a lot of experience for the UN, for his country and for the Arab League. He is very familiar with the issues that are facing the Middle East. But coming after Kofi Annan, he realised at the beginning that his mission is almost as impossible as it was for Annan. He set the bar very low and wisely so. But he drew the lessons from Annan who tried to reach a quick solution by focusing on the main actors including the Russians, Iranians, Chinese, and Americans. He went to the main capitals and tried to find a solution, but of course that was a time when the Russians were deeply suspicious of the West. They weren’t ready to compromise at all. Consequently, Annan couldn’t go anywhere with that approach. Ibrahimi is using a different approach. He is taking his time. He focused more on the actors of the Middle East and set up his office in Damascus whereas Annan worked from Geneva. By staying closer to the ground he is trying to figure out what exactly would be needed to make the Syrians compromise, and I think he is getting there. He began to understand the dynamics of the Syrian actors, how they view the conflict, and what it would take to convince them that there is a possibility to solve the crisis. He is coming up with a plan, which isn’t yet clearly articulated. I think he is building on what Annan left in the Geneva Plan. Let’s wait and see what he will propose to the Security Council. Whether he will succeed or not, he may be lucky in that by the time his plan is mature, the two sides would be exhausted and ready to compromise. They may reach a point were they will look to grasp for a solution. A big advantage Ibrahimi has is that he is credible with both sides. He is considered a neutral arbitrator.

KY | What are logical speculations for this problem?

AR | A solution that would involve face-saving approach for Assad. Letting him finish his term and then organising new elections, opening up the process of electing a new leader. This will preserve for a time the interests of the clique that surrounds Assad, the Baa’th party, and security forces; giving them some role in the transition government along with the opposition groups. But this is an optimistic scenario. Events on the ground may overtake any chance for a peaceful solution. In that case, all bets are off. The aftermath of a military defeat for Assad could be very messy.

KY | On a broader sense, the hostilities and rebellions happening everywhere are challenging the international security system. With Boutrous Ghali’s Agenda for Peace and his concept conflict prevention in mind, do you think that the UN will have to rethink its instruments?

AR |  I think that the steps that are outlined for security situations are classical steps of how to prevent conflict. They go step-by-step with the things the UN is good at doing: good offices, arbitration, and using the International Court of Justice if necessary. The new trend that is emerging now, in terms of the UN approach to internal conflicts, is the right to protect (R2P)1. It is not yet part of international law, but it is gaining support as an international instrument that could justify intervention by countries or the international community in cases where civilians are at risk and need protection. It is a new principle and an interesting development of international law that gives the UN a legal instrument with which to prevent a conflict, or at least limit the damage that conflict may cause. But other than that, the UN carries out its mission the usual way. It has well tested structures to deal with conflict, including DPA (political affairs), DPKO (peacekeeping forces) in addition to the Security Council, which has wide powers including Chapter VII. Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan contributed to improving the UN machinery by adding such concepts as preventive development, the fight against terrorism and organised crime, the protection of the environment and so on. In order for the UN to fulfil its missions, it must evolve with the international environment. The Secretary General plays a crucial role in ensuring that the UN does adapt to the evolving environment.

1- Responsibility to protect (R2P) is a concept on the involvement of the international community through coercive measures to protect citizens in cases of mass atrocities when the state fails to do so.

Kenza Yousfi is a lover of reason, art, music, and literature, especially Arabic. She is pursuing her BA in International Studies, and planning to pursue graduate studies in Development and Gender Studies. Her passion is conducting fieldwork, travelling, tasting food, and encountering new cultures. She is interested in social policy, MENA culture and politics, philosophy, and biology.