“We don’t kill our people, nobody kills, no government in the world kills his people unless they’re crazy persons. […] I became President because of public support. I did my best to protect the people so I cannot be guilty while I protect”. These were the words pronounced in December 2011, by the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, during an interview for an American TV channel.
In the same occasion, he also assumed that the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria was forced allegations and a distortion of reality. He officially declared feeling profoundly sorry for the lives lost but was not guilty of a crime. As the head of state, he struggled to protect his people. Bashar al-Assad is the elected President of Syria since the year 2000. The last four years have challenged Assad’s responsibility to protect and safeguard the integrity of his country and its citizen, by using all the means in his power.
Syrian civil society broke down in 2011. Subsequently, four years of massacres, violent crimes, human suffering and anarchy have evolved. The civil war between the Shia government of Assad and the Sunni opposition has broadened, now including numerous groups in the opposition front, as well as militant terrorists and foreign fighters. Today, about 1000 opposition groups have been recognized comprising an estimated 100,000 fighters. The main rebel coalitions consist of Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front, Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. There are also independent groups and jihadist groups such as Tanzim Qa’edat al-Jihad fi Balad Al-Sham, better known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Syrian opposition factions have not been successful in creating a unified political and military opposition, and some of its elements have been charged with abuses and crimes on civilians. The fractious opposition, deeply divided between political groups, activists, armed militants and exiled dissidents, is substantial proof of the complexity of this conflict.
Equally responsible, external actors have been involved in this framework, by supporting one side or the other, and by making the usual mistake of not foreseeing a clear general picture. Although the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly have passed several resolutions to unlock the critical status, the disagreements in the executive body – the Security Council –, the veto power exercised by some of the Permanent Members, combined with the national geopolitical interests, contributed greatly to missed opportunities to avert the major challenge of the Syrian conflict, the growing humanitarian crisis.
Therefore, the UN failed in providing leadership and a concerted answer, and the EU has not been able to answer with a strong collective voice either. Scholars claim R2P (Responsibility to Protect) should have committed international actors take consecutive, measurable steps to mitigate the risk of mass atrocities, based on existing legal obligations. Unfortunately, the legal, political, diplomatic remarks never moved the status quo from the critical quagmire. The situation has quickly collapsed into a full scale humanitarian crisis.
The Syrian crisis continues and daily reports of horrific crimes against the population are escalating. After four years, the conflict counts 306,271 people – updated at April 2015 – who have been killed, among whom 100,973 civilians, together with 3,826,752 million refugees which have fled the country, plus 6.5 million internally displaced, for a total of 10.8 million of Syria’s 22 million population affected by the conflict and in dire need of humanitarian assistance, according to UNHCR.
Ambassador Staffan De Mistura, UN Special Envoy to Syria since July 2014, has been working since November of last year to empower a project to reduce violence and stop the fighting. His main initiative lays in freezing the conflict in Aleppo and normalize the situation in one of the hottest areas of conflict. The city is 2/3 controlled by the government and 1/3 in the hands of the numerous opposition groups, under the umbrella of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and 20 km from ISIS militant bases. As a consequence, the UN Envoy aimed at the implementation of relevant Security Council anti-terrorism resolutions – particularly Resolution 2170, which provides for combating IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other branches of al-Qaeda, as well as Resolution 2178, which emphasizes the need for all countries to prevent foreign terrorists from entering Syria and Iraq. A compact front between the Syrian army and the opposition has been identified as a potential solid asset to be used against IS threat.
“Let’s be frank, I have no illusions because based on past experiences, this will be a difficult issue to be achieved”, De Mistura declared at the Syria’s government agreement to stop Aleppo strikes for six weeks, this February. The perpetrated atrocities by the Assad government – bombardments as well as the use of chlorine and other chemical weapons against civilians – together with the territorial advance of the rebel groups have clearly demonstrated the failure of the “freezing Aleppo” strategy.
Therefore, it seems difficult to see this one as an attempt to exit from the impasse. First, the cease-fire could have worked only if both parties had seen advantages coming from it; secondly, halting the violence in Aleppo did not stop the confrontation from continuing elsewhere. Consequently, the Syrian army had time to deploy fighters at other bases and gaining more control over the territory. Reactively, the same short-term tactic has been launched by the opposition.
At the present moment of this long-lasting confrontation, Assad is losing ground. In particular, al-Nusra‘s conquest of Idlib, Foreign Syrian Army‘s moving towards Daraa, and the Islamic State‘s siege of Yarmouk camp explain the insecurity that surrounds Assad and his regime. Considering Daesh, the Assad government has profited from the US-coalition’s strikes as a window of opportunity to increase the attacks against the rebels – as the rest of the world has been focusing its attention on the threat of the Islamic State –, now that the Islamists have increased their popularity and success, and as a result, the number of militants, the Syrian President urges a united front to fight against them. Thereupon, after having shared his opinion on the uselessness of the strikes on Iraq and Syria, he publicly declared, last March, his will to open dialogue towards the US. After the declarations of Secretary of State John Kerry on the necessity to talk to Assad and his government, to put an end to the Syrian crisis, the President answered positively.
However, after the initial apparent détente, both parties acted defensively. The US highlighted their strategy towards Syria and firmly implied Assad must step down, rather than collaborate with him. In reply, the Syrian leader underscored the Americans have neither the right to pressure the sovereignty of Syria, nor the prerogative of making a decision to guide the country. “It is not their business”.
Furthermore, the President’s vulnerability is increased by the role played by its two historical external supporters, namely Russia and Iran. The former’s foreign minister has admitted that several dowels have moved since the beginning of the popular protests in 2011, and this could profoundly change the Federation’s foreign policy strategy. On the other hand, although the Islamic Republic of Iran always considers Assad’s role as fundamental to guarantee Iranian access to the geopolitics of the Proche Orient, something could change, as a framework deal on nuclear resources has been signed. From a closer point of view, it gathers that the relief from economic sanctions could fill the state coffers and consequently augment the reserved funds to Assad. Clearly, Iran could also decide that the Syrian cause is becoming too expensive and that now the bridge towards Obama has started to be framed, an outstretched hand to Syria could be a tactical mistake.
However, beyond politics, personal interests and strategic calculations, thousands of individuals continue to be prisoners in the grip of death, while the world watches, powerless, incapable, and feeble.
Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)