To give peace a chance in Syria, Canada has options

The new constitutional committee is an opportunity to increase support for peace in Syria but, as Kareem Shaheen writes, there is even more to be done.

By: /
November 13, 2019
Syria constitutional committee
A member of the Syrian government delegation is greeted upon arrival at the United Nations for the first meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Kareem Shaheen

Montreal-based journalist and former Middle East correspondent

The war in Syria can drag on for months with nary a shot fired on its frontlines or movement in its halting peace process. And then it all gets upended in a dizzying month of momentous developments, their chaotic nature worsened by the absence of a coherent Western policy towards the conflict.

Such has been the case recently. The lack of strategy beyond Donald Trump’s social media whims and musings has left Western powers with little leverage in peace talks, the latest iteration of which is the Astana peace process that began in the Kazakh capital in December 2016, orchestrated by the tripartite coalition of Turkey, Russia and Iran. The geopolitical adventures of this coalition, along with those of the US and Gulf state backers, the brutality of the Assad regime, and the emergence of terrorist groups like ISIS helped transform a peaceful uprising for freedom and dignity into a civil war with a complex web of alliances and patronage that makes the war so much harder to resolve.

It is a state of affairs that highlights the dire need for a consistent and principled policy on Syria that emphasizes the alleviation of human suffering, the protection of civilians, and genuine efforts at peacebuilding and encouraging political reform. The country remains a tinderbox of discontent, despite the apparent military victory of the regime.

Canada’s consistent record on Syria, which, since the election of Justin Trudeau in 2015, has emphasized humanitarian support through the resettlement of refugees, and its focus on human rights more broadly in its rhetoric on the Middle East (with the exception of its military relations with Saudi Arabia), must now shift towards more active support for civil society and political reform initiatives. It must join with European allies in offering concrete proposals that tie structural changes to Bashar al-Assad’s police state to economic and diplomatic incentives, while supporting grassroots efforts by ordinary Syrians who want to live together again after the war. This ought to be combined with an ongoing commitment to sheltering innocents who fled the conflict by continuing to offer asylum to Syrians and other human rights defenders in the region who need protection from violence and oppression.

The state of Syria

A month ago, the war in Syria seemed to have settled into a stable equilibrium. Assad and his regime had prevailed over the opposition after eight years of starvation sieges, merciless bombardment of opposition-controlled communities, stalling on peace talks, and repeated atrocities. Backed by Russia’s air force and pro-Iranian militias, Assad clawed back swathes of the country including the industrial capital, Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus, and the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising was born.

These so-called liberation campaigns followed a pattern of scorched earth bombing from land and air while maintaining tight sieges on civilian communities, eventually forcing their surrender and the displacement of opposition activists and fighters who fear being disappeared by Assad’s security apparatus.

"This entire fragile balance was thrown into disarray by Trump’s impulsive foreign policy."

With more than half a million dead, half the country’s population either internally displaced or refugees, and multiple uses of chemical weapons, only three regions remained outside government control. A strip of territory in the north along the Turkish border is held by Syrian fighters who are little more than proxies of Ankara. Much of the east and northeast was under the control of Kurdish militias under US protection. And the province of Idlib in the northwest, where three million people await their fate, some of whom were displaced up to 10 times, is controlled by fighters linked to al-Qaeda.

This entire fragile balance was thrown into disarray by Trump’s impulsive foreign policy, which gave a green light (either explicit or implicit in the general absence of consequences for international thuggery) to Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria in October. Ankara wants to limit the gains of the Kurdish militias allied with the US, and who in turn are affiliated with a separatist terror group in Turkey called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The US withdrew from many of its outposts in Syria, which were crucial in the effort to prevent the resurgence of ISIS after it lost most of its territorial holdings in Syria. Consequently, the Kurds invited the Assad regime and Russia to return to the areas that had been under autonomous Kurdish control, ceding vast swathes of the country without a shot fired and strengthening the government’s hand.

To cap the momentous developments, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself after being cornered by American special forces near the Turkish border, and his potential successor was killed in an airstrike a day later.

Chances for peace

In what felt like a sideshow to all this, a constitutional committee that was formed after arduous UN-backed negotiations, and which includes pro-Syrian government, opposition and civil society delegates, convened for the first time in Geneva at the end of October.

The sideshow must become the main act, because peace has no chance of prevailing in Syria without deep and meaningful changes.

Canada’s Syria policy has two planks — refugee resettlement, which led to the arrival of thousands of Syrians mostly from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan in a mix of government and private sponsorship arrangements; and humanitarian support, a term that is used here to lump together a mix of programmes that include aid delivery, development support to countries hosting large refugee communities, and so-called “stabilization” funds that supported civil society and relief efforts in areas outside government control.

The refugee resettlement policy marked Canada out as a principled actor in the conflict due to its divergence from broader international sentiment — in Western countries, the refugee crisis overwhelmingly led to the resurgence of anti-immigrant politicians and far-right nationalists. Ottawa doubled down on this policy when it orchestrated the spectacular rescue of the White Helmets, the volunteer rescue workers in Syria who have been the subject of smear campaigns by the Assad regime and Russian troll networks on social media. Dozens of family members were resettled in Canada amid heightened anti-refugee sentiment all over the world.

Yet Western powers, including Canada, enjoy limited leverage in peace negotiations because of their reluctance to intervene militarily in the conflict beyond the narrow scope of anti-ISIS operations. Those talks are convened by the powers with a direct presence on the ground. But Western countries do hold some cards like lifting sanctions, reconstruction aid and fixing Syria’s pariah state status.

The Syrian regime’s backers, Russia and Iran, are unwilling to invest large sums of money and hope instead to exploit economic opportunities proffered by the regime they rescued. Despite its outward appearance as the war’s victor, Assad’s apparatus remains unstable — economic growth is arrested, rebuilding the country will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, energy shortages continue, and there is no agreement on what the post-war order, which was shaped by so many sacrifices for the sake of the regime’s survival, will look like.

The constitutional committee is flawed, its make-up shaped by years of politicking, and isn’t as representative as it should be (the Kurds in the autonomous areas are not represented, for example). Some rights activists in Syria argue that the entire process is de facto illegitimate and unrepresentative of the Syrian popular will.

Nevertheless, Canada should support the process. It is the only game in town, in the sense that it is the only process with some measure of diplomatic backing. But it also represents an opportunity to shape the broader conversation about what Syrian society will look like for potentially years or decades to come, the only concession that is achievable at the moment for a scattered and defeated opposition.

What support looks like

This support can take the shape of political statements backing the constitutional committee’s mandate, but can also extend to training and workshops for opposition delegates on constitutional law, for instance, providing expertise or advice on process and legal standards, or other measures of logistical support.

"The second plank of Canada’s policy ought to focus on providing support for civil society initiatives."

Canada should also begin considering reconstruction projects as part of a broader alliance of Western powers that includes the European Union, but only as part of a set of concrete steps meant to extract concessions from the regime in exchange for a return to the international community. These steps would include specific, measurable progress on issues like the release of detainees, of whom more than 130,000 remain forcibly disappeared in Assad’s dungeons, the dismantling of the security apparatus, and the institution of safeguards that guarantee free and fair elections. Germany and France succeeded in extracting some minor concessions last year as part of a similar process, taking the unusual step of sending humanitarian aid to the Syrian government and other confidence-building measures in the run up to municipal elections in Syria.

The second plank of Canada’s policy ought to focus on providing support for civil society initiatives, including clandestine ones outside of Syria, that aim to support grassroots institutions and activists that coalesced in the course of the uprising. This includes support for initiatives that bring together ordinary Syrians on both sides of the war, conflict resolution programmes to help rebuild shattered communities, and women’s empowerment projects that support both women wanting to participate in the political and civil society sphere as well as those who want to become entrepreneurs to support their own families (an overwhelming majority of refugee households in Lebanon are led by women). This would help foster civil society that isn’t under the exclusive control of the Assad regime’s apparatus.

Finally, Canada should continue its policy of offering shelter and asylum to those fleeing the war. The need for refugee support has not been eliminated, and neighbouring countries continue to bear the burden of hosting those who fled the war (nearly four million Syrian refugees are in Turkey, and one in five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee). Worse, public and political sentiment in those countries has steadily turning more and more hostile to their presence as unrelated economic challenges take hold. These refugees have no safe place to return to, and some, including in both Turkey and Lebanon, have been forcibly repatriated to Syria, where they face possible arrest. Canada must continue in its role of offering protection to the vulnerable, and involving them in its Syria policy, to maintain its position as a credible, human rights-focused international actor.

There are no perfect solutions in Syria. It is difficult to imagine a peace settlement out of the injustice and trysts of alliances that have destroyed the country and achieved none of the desired reforms or an end to Assad’s totalitarian regime. But Canada has an opportunity to help spearhead, through a principled and humanitarian foreign policy, a process that could offer some spark of hope at the end of a very dark tunnel.