The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.
The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 10 “Technical Assistance and Capacity-building” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the shortcomings of the current UN strategy in Libya, Syria and Bahrain and the steps that should be taken.
What follows was first published on Neil Partrick’s blog:
Sami Khiyami was the Syrian ambassador to the UK until March 2012. As the fighting in his home country raged and his recommendations were ignored, he asked President Assad to allow him to resign his post. After some deliberation Assad reluctantly agreed to what Khiyami wanted, on the understanding that he would not be defecting but simply stepping aside.
Since then Sami Khiyami, like many Syrians, has been based in neighbouring Lebanon. For more than a year he has been trying to build support for a peace plan designed to cut through the impasse of Assad’s determination, backed by Russia and Iran, to remain in power, and the western and Gulf-backed opposition’s demand that he go as soon as a transitional deal is brokered and that state power be transferred to those outside of his regime.
Speaking to Mr Khiyami in Beirut I was struck by the clarity of his thinking. Notwithstanding the obvious difficulty of somehow achieving contradictory outcomes, Khiyami is clear-sighted that, alongside Assad remaining president until a transitional phase of four to five years is complete, there needs to be an appointed assembly of vetted men and women without a partisan background to serve as legislators and to whom an interim government, that they appoint, would be answerable. It is this constituent assembly (CA) that needs, by international, regional and above all Syrian agreement to become the locus of actual power, he argues.
Obviously any deal would have to be backed by the foreign states augmenting the firepower of all sides of the war, but how, I asked Sami, would Syrian fighters with seemingly everything to lose be brought into the equation? He advocates a joint military council of what he calls “moderate regime and rebel fighters” who would be answerable to the CA. The military council (MC) would restructure and re-establish the armed forces as a common Syrian national military answerable not to the President or any other part of the current Damascus regime, nor to any rebel force, but to the CA. The CA would also oversee the reformation of the police on what is envisaged as non-partisan lines.
It made me wonder how Assad, his regime circle, and their foreign backers could believe that their man would survive what would be nothing less than a refashioning of the Syrian state. If control of state force is no longer in the hands of the regime, how could Assad believe that he (and his family) would be physically safe, let alone remain president? Of course it would be understood by all parties that the transition of the country under the CA would necessarily be followed by open and peaceable elections. In such circumstances Assad, should he wish to stand, would be an unlikely victor. He and his backers would have to accept that such an outcome is likely, and that very acceptance would, Sami believes, provide the basis for his Syrian enemies to accept, and indeed guarantee, that he could be a part of the transitional arrangements, even if he would be in office but not really in power. This of course is the position that western powers, including the US, and, it seems, even the Saudis have finally come round to. It might, but only might, be something that Russia would back too. If it did, it would be harder for Iran and ultimately Assad to reject. A deal that some, including former Finnish president and global diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, claim could have been fashioned several years ago with the backing of Russia, preventing the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, might now be possible.
Set against this of course are Assad’s territorial advances. At such a time why on earth would he concede power to a CA, however dispassionate Sami Khiyami claims such a body would be? One answer perhaps is that the CA he has in mind really would be a neutral body, or as neutral could be expected in a country polarised by one family’s rule for half a century, not to mention over five years of bloody conflict. The other, more relevant, reason for Assad might be that he knows territorial advances in battle do not equal peace, or anything like it. The war is far from over. The Russian-US-Turkish agreement on de-escalation zones in some parts of the north-west, east and south of the country, whether they hold or not, only emphasises the limited writ of the Syrian regime. The south is currently largely under the control of Gulf and Jordanian-backed rebels, while part of the north-east is a Syrian-Kurdish zone backed by US forces who are based there as part of the anti-IS campaign. Iran remains an important regional ally of the regime, assisting, via Hizbollah and Iraqi allies, the authority of Assad’s forces in the western and eastern border areas. Assad may therefore believe his regime can survive, but there is little to suggest it can control the country. A regime that doesn’t control the territory of the state, let alone have the acceptance of most of its inhabitants, will always be vulnerable.
Sami Khiyami’s plan seeks to put the control of the whole territory and machinery of the state in the hands of a CA appointed via a two stage process designed to ensure that popularly accepted figures run the country until the country is stable enough for an elected authority to do so. He recommends that the UN approve 1,000 Syrians who will meet inside Syria, no doubt under international protection, to determine a 50-member Council of the Wise (CoW) – elders or venerated people, not regime or rebel apparatchiks. The CoW will in turn choose 200 respected and able Syrian personalities to serve as members of the CA. The latter will in turn appoint the executive authority.
The idea behind this rather convoluted process is to avoid an Afghan scenario whereby a loya jirga was shepherded by the UN after the fall of the Taliban to rubber stamp a predetermined new government. The UN’s role in Syria would be to assist in starting the transitional arrangements. In fact Sami is busy working, with Syrian colleagues, on 2,000 names that can be given to the UN to assist it in its task in coming up with 1,000 people to begin the transitional process. Once the 1,000 Syrians meet, this becomes exclusively a Syrian process and out of UN hands other than, hopefully, being endorsed by the UN Security Council. Despite wanting to circumvent the absurdity of talk of elections in a country where politics is secondary to territorial struggle, Sami envisages that a simple yes/no referendum could be conducted once the CA is set up. This he says could give the transitional process some popular Syrian legitimacy. It isn’t clear what happens if the answer is no, but Sami is confident that a clear majority would back it.
However it’s obvious that key to just getting this process started is the connivance, at the very least, of the foreign backers of the regime, the rebels and of opposition political figures, as well as the approval of many of the key Syrians themselves. He assumes that the takfiris will have to be crushed – whether by regime, Kurds or western forces – because they will never agree to a peace process. The difficulty with this argument is that there are many Syrian Sunni Islamist fighters, some connected to Gulf and western governments, who seek to delegitimise their opponents on religious grounds. The regime or Russian definition of takfiris is essentially any Islamist rebel fighter. Yet all sides, including those Islamist militants who aren’t nihilists, will somehow have to agree to Sami’s ideas.
The proposed MC will be pivotal. Without it functioning effectively, the CA cannot be the source of power in the country. If power comes from the barrel of a gun, as Mao observed, then the MC will be needed by the CA to ensure it controls the state. Otherwise the CA will be a talking shop with no relevance to what really happens in Syria. If the latter scenario appears likely then neither Assad, his family, or the significant numbers of military rebels that Sami envisages signing up to the process will come on board. Sami argues that there are “uncontaminated” military men on the regime and opposition side who can find a way to work together. That said, many Sunni Islamist rebel leaders will need to cooperate with the MC too.
However, as all key foreign states now seem to accept that Assad can remain in the transitional period, and even perhaps stand for election should a presidential system be agreed for the future state of Syria, then this may be the moment to explore Sami’s ideas further. Perhaps there are enough members of the Syrian great and the good, or at least those who are relatively uncorrupted and untarnished, to finally put an end to the horror.
Key parts of the Peace Plan:
- 1,000 member body approved by UN >
- This body chooses 50 member Council of the Wise (CoW) >
- CoW chooses 200 member Constituent Assembly (CA)>
- Referendum to approve or disapprove of CA>
- CA appoints Government and Military Council; CA directs the transitional process for up to five years>
- National elections to determine a new government
Following the French-brokered peace talks on July 25 between the Libyan military strongman, General Khalīfa Belqāsim Ḥaftar and Fāyez Muṣṭafā al-Sarrāj, Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya, an agreement for a national reconciliation process of the North African country seems to have apparently been attained.
The settlement reached constitutes one first step towards a widely endorsed power-sharing solution involving the two biggest factions of the country. On the one hand, al-Sarrāj’s UN-backed government in Tripoli exercises strong power over most of the western part of the country – including a good share of those areas formerly under the control of anti-Gaddafi militias. On the other hand, General Haftar – who seized control of the eastern part of Libya – has been emerging as an essential actor in addressing the threats of jihadism and migration, thus demonstrating to European powers his strategic role for their domestic interests.
In spite of the enthusiasm for such a certainly positive turn of events in the country, however, a few concerns relating to some “technical aspects” of the matter should be expressed.
It is no secret that General Haftar is an ambiguous figure who teeters upon the brink between being a strong military leader and a potential future dictator. His thirst for power as well as his unorthodox approach to tackling jihadists and migration flows towards Europe might be a sufficient red flag for the international community to cast doubts on his reliability as a potential next leader of the country.
Second, the power-sharing solution negotiated at the peace talks is inherently flawed. Despite the great influence the two leaders have in Libya, the rest of the country is still strongly divided. Libya is currently split into several militia zones controlled by the most disparate military groups. Each of them would hardly be inclined to relinquish power, and thus may potentially constitute a threat to the stability of the country if not involved in the peace talks. A power-sharing settlement would be, in this sense, irrelevant if not all of the main parties and factions are involved in the process. Interestingly, statistic records from cases where a national reconciliation process was implemented through a power-sharing settlement show how greater inclusiveness in the peace process is correlated to major likelihood of success of the process itself.
Within this framework, while strong doubts emerge over the lasting effectiveness of the agreement that has been reached, the sole certain fact is that the current shambles in Libya is more of a brutal reflection of an underlying struggle between foreign powers for the future control of the precious Libyan resources. In this sense, supporting either al-Sarrāj or Haftar, or both, is only a question of strategy and, after all, another way of saying that peace does not really matter on the geopolitical chessboard.
 Hartzell, Caroline, and Matthew Hoddie. 2003. “Institutionalizing Peace: Power Sharing And Post-Civil War Conflict Management”. American Journal Of Political Science 47 (2): 318. doi:10.2307/3186141.
Since 2015, the US-backed coalition the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian-backed Assad army have regained many of the IS strongholds, diminishing the presence of Daesh in Syria and Iraq.
Most recently in July 2017, the recapture of the city of Mosul spread both national and international hope that the current capital of ISIS’ ‘Caliphate,’ the Syrian city of Raqqa, will now face the same fate.
With the battle now well underway, Nowruz Ahmed, who sits on the military council of the SDF, claimed that the city will be recaptured within no more than two months. Such a statement has been endorsed enthusiastically by the international community.
Amidst such an encouraging prediction, the effect on the civilians held hostage in the IS stronghold will be devastating unless action is taken immediately. In Mosul alone, an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed due to (among many factors), (i) the immense firepower used to extract IS fighters from the city, and (ii) IS’ brutality against civilians, especially using them as ‘human shields’ against the incoming enemy.
Western governments estimate that approximately 18,000-25,000 Syrians remain in the besieged city of Raqqa, with an estimated 50% being children. The City had a prewar population of a quarter of a million and any estimate of the number of civilians still present has to be little more than a guess. Save The Children has called for an immediate ceasefire of fighting, on all sides, to allow civilians to escape safely from the city.
US-backed SDF fighters are working tirelessly to extract civilians from the city. However, reports from Raqqa suggest IS fighters have caught onto this fact, so are concealing themselves as SDF soldiers in order to recapture fleeing civilians. Once recaptured, civilians are either tortured and executed, or added to IS’ growing (guesstimates range from 7,000-20,000 large) human shield.
A dilemma arises for the international community. How should we help the oppressed civilians in Raqqa amidst growing violence? In attempting to safely extract them from the city, it is clear a huge amount of suffering is accrued. Nonetheless, by not working to extract civilians, they risk making more civilians the collateral of the war against IS. If the SDF and Assad forces use the same immense firepower in Raqqa as our allies did in Mosul, it means the civilians of Raqqa will suffer the same fate as the civilians of Mosul.
However, with the best intention, we cannot concur with Save The Children that a cease-fire is the right option. IS’ heinous treatment of civilians highlights their desperateness to maintain their strong hold over Raqqa. In any case, a cease-fire is highly unlikely as it would give credence to their Caliphate. More turmoil would likely result.
Placing a prediction on the length of the operation to remove IS from Raqqa, as Nowruz Ahmed did, is not wise. The operation must conform to standards of warfare worthy of the UN charter, therefore must first and foremost protect the safety of civilians. The fight to eradicate IS cannot be conducted without respect for the Geneva Conventions.
The latest atrocity visited upon innocent civilians on a summer’s day in Spain follows a now, sadly, familiar pattern of events. The callous running down of anyone in the way of a death dealing vehicle is followed by frantic attempts by the authorities to contain the perpetrators and end their murderous intent by all means possible, often by lethal force. ISIS (Daesh) are anxious to claim such incidents as their own – though a direct link may be unproven – they are without doubt the bitter fruit of their pernicious and doomed ideology. After each such outrage certain questions linger and their solution seems as elusive as ever. Why do young men (and sometimes women) from similar backgrounds enrol themselves in the destructive and blood thirsty claims and actions of ISIS (Daesh)? What do they hope to gain from such atrocities which in further their cause or beliefs? As the perpetrators are often killed or kill themselves during such terrorist acts what is their personal belief of their future beyond death? It may give some comfort to imagine these acts of terrorism are also acts of desperation as the adherents of extremist forms of Jihadism see their illusion of an earthly Caliphate, formed in their own image, receding with every military defeat in Iraq and Syria.
If these are acts of desperation then the source of that desperation is not only political and ideological, it is also spiritual. To have one’s dreams, beliefs and aspirations for the dawning of a new age of certainty and authoritarianism based upon Islamic principles (however distorted), with ISIS at the vanguard, widely discredited and disowned among your co-religionists and see the vanguard systematically defeated is a bitter, and for some, unbearable experience of downfall. Towards the end of World War Two a number of SS officers committed suicide rather than surrender and the Kamikaze pilots of the Japanese Imperial Army were similarly intent upon death rather than dishonour. If your ideology is one where honour rather than shame and guilt is a core element of your culture then what are your options when facing the defeat and humiliation of your dreams?
For those committing these atrocities lines have been crossed: from idealism to nihilism, from belief in a paradisaical earthly future to a death fixation and from utopia to dystopia. History recounts the crossing of these lines leads to a narrowing of options for the ‘believer’; death or glory. But it is a glorification of the self rather than the cause. Such terrorists are engaging in a monumental act of self-centred narcissistic nihilism which is neither martyrdom nor sacrifice as they are not directly persecuted and no one benefits from their death. By choosing to die after murdering the maximum number of innocent people they are reinforcing the dysfunctional and doomed nature of their cause.
Does this analysis give us any cause for comfort? No. Such extremes of individualism have their roots in the Western discourse which for 300 years sought to delineate the needs of the individual over the anonymity of the whole and the authority of the state; faith – at best – providing a moderating influence on both. But where is faith now? Whither the institutions which endeavour to mediate the divine will to the masses while conscious of their own shortcomings? Alongside the narcissistic nihilism of the current cohort of terrorists is a spiritual emptiness at the heart of many nations and peoples, an emptiness being filled by a range of quasi religio-politico causes bearing little or no resemblance to the God of Love and Mercy many millions still worship in one form or another.
Fr Larry Wright, Religious Affairs Advisory Group, London,