So it’s finally happened, after 16 months. The major world powers have agreed a transition plan for Syria. The Russians agreed to let go of Bashar and the Americans agreed to allow parts of his government to remain for the transition. The opposition will join the government, Bashar will step down and be replaced by a moderate figure (if anyone can find one), and a process of national reconciliation will begin.
Or it would have done, had this been June 2011, or September 2011, or even probably January 2012. But the global powers have taken such a lot of persuasion to change their views that, while they were humming and hawing, the Syrian situation outgrew them – again. A few months ago I was horrified by the calls for Western military intervention in Syria, made by Syrians themselves. By now, the uprising has reached a level of militarisation at which those involved have decided to simply ignore the West. If we’re going to faff around producing degrees and statements while they’re being murdered, then they’re going to have to do it themselves.
The problem is that Syria is in a state of war. I don’t say it lightly, but it’s true. It was like that even before today’s announcement. War is a mental state as much as it is a political and military one, and from that point of view Syria has been at war for months. Conceptions of the end goal of the uprising have devolved into a simple binary choice: either the rebels win, or the regime wins, and whoever wins will have total control. Once the outcome has been framed in a way where someone ‘wins’, negotiation becomes extremely difficult, no least because both sides attack the negotiator for being biased against them (some particularly far-sighted Syrians on Twitter are calling for Annan to be assassinated). The Syrian opposition’s views on negotiation have become markedly less helpful over the last few months. In a reaction to today’s agreement, the SNC said:
“Ultimately, we want to stop the bloodshed in Syria. If that comes through political dialogue, we are willing to do that… we are not willing to negotiate [with] Mr Assad and those who have murdered Syrians. We are not going to negotiate unless they leave Syria.” (source)
This of course raises the question of exactly with whom they are willing to conduct political dialogue if not with their principal enemy. I’m not confident that the SNC will be robustly challenged on their refusal to negotiate because the Western powers are now suffering from Rwanda syndrome – after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the international community felt so guilty about having been thoroughly useless while the Tutsis were massacred that they refused to censure the new Tutsi government even when it began to carry out its own acts of violence in the nation. This reluctance to reign in General Kagame (who is now President Kagame) eventually led to the First and Second Congo Wars, and a continuing suppression of reports critical of the Rwandese government, even now. Our situation with reference to the Syrian opposition is very similar – because of the horrors visited upon Syrians involved in the uprising, and the omnipresent video footage of bodies, explosions, and mutilations, we feel that we are in no position to criticise. On one level, this is entirely fair. On another, it is incredibly dangerous; one of the main reasons the West and Russia have taken such a long time to agree is that the West reacts with vigour against any Russian or UN mention of possible violence by opposition forces.
This whole process is unfortunate because it’s where the major world powers’ conception of the crisis began. As time has passed, their understanding has developed, and now we are at a point where they have officially recognised that a result in which one group triumphs over the other is not going to lead to lasting peace. Of course, with the militarisation of the conflict, a resolution which aims for a happy medium won’t end the violence either: the wilder ends of the spectrum, feeling hard done by, will attempt to ‘remedy’ the situation in their favour.
So that’s it: war and conflict, however you approach it. Syria will be destroyed. Another stirring success for global diplomacy.