Keeping Back the Bulldozers in Syria

Syria's future is in houses and neighbourhoods, not evacuations, argues Jack MacLennan.
By: /
February 12, 2014
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PhD candidate at Carleton University

The Geneva II conference on the Syrian conflict has come and gone and in the process illustrating the painfully obvious truth that negotiation has reached an impasse. Such an outcome was apparent before talks in Montreux and Geneva even began. In many ways, Western rhetoric has lost touch with what is happening on the ground in Syria, as well as the effects various actions are having on the Syrian population. To be blunt, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has spent the better part of the last year on the offensive and now appears to have the upper hand, though Western rhetoric continues to call for his immediate removal. Though the Islamist opposition forces never represented the majority of opposition forces, the recent split between Al Qaeda and units of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) demonstrates the pressure opposition forces are under by pro-Assad and government forces. While the international community remains caught up in fervour over chemical weapons, Assad’s forces have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of using far less technologically advanced weaponry, such as improvised barrel bombs, to tremendous psychological and tactical effect. Presently, there is little reason for Assad to negotiate in good faith. He is winning while the international community remains committed to his ouster and concerned about tools that have been eliminated from the strategic equation in Syria.

And it gets worse. A report published last month by Human Rights Watch has documented the efforts of pro-Assad and government forces to willfully destroy homes and neighbourhoods in Damascus and Hama using both heavy equipment and explosives. This is a play straight out of the Assad family playbook; his father did the same thing to eliminate potential challengers in 1982. Combined with the already considerable destruction the civil war is having, which only seemed to come to Western attention last summer, the real story in Syria is that the physical spaces in which politics and society can be said to ‘exist’ are being systematically destroyed. In the Western political debate such destruction is identified by is effect, namely the massive amount of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) it creates. Though providing care for such groups is essential from a humanitarian perspective, if the international community is to stand a chance at managing the conflict the preservation of such spaces must become a priority.

Space is an essential aspect of politics and subsequently conflict. Though the politics that fuel the conflict in Syria are not, in-and-of themselves, tied to any one space, be it a neighbourhood, a city, or even a region, they require such spaces in order to exist. Simply put, if the rebels have no place to be, then there is no way for them to exercise what remains of their political agency. The same is true for the Syrian population. If the Assad regime can successfully uproot groups that are not loyal, it means these groups are forced to deal with a frightening new reality in which merely staying alive is a struggle. In these circumstances, large groups of civilians are left with little capacity to exercise their political agency. As a result, civilians are left hopelessly in the balance as the regime in Damascus, and increasingly fractured and radical opposition groups, continue to trade ordinance and play politics without their input.

In light of these developments, the negotiation of safe passage for refugees from the besieged city of Homs, which has recently gotten underway, should not be seen as a positive development. Though providing succor for the suffering of Homs should be welcomed, the exodus of a large group of civilians from Homs accomplishes the same political end as the destruction of homes and neighbourhoods in other cities. Evacuation transforms individuals into IDPs, further empowering the Assad regime by undermining the capacity of individuals to voice opposition. Though the evacuation is not being viewed as a milestone, and several have argued that further guarantees for the safe provision of aid are required, the desire to help the people of Homs has ended up with the cart before the horse.

There is, of course, another round of peace talks on Syria coming which will include Syria’s backer Russia, who recently threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution referring to the humanitarian situation in Syria. If the bluster of the Western and opposition contingents is not in some way drawn down, it is likely that this next round could end like Geneva II, with little more that ill-natured bickering. With Russia in the room, however, there is potential for movement in negotiations. But pushing Assad to step down immediately in favour of a transition government is unlikely to produce anything useful, humanitarian or otherwise. What Western countries should be doing now is looking for ways to prevent further wholesale destruction of Syrian homes, public spaces, neighbourhoods, and cities. Ensuring the protection of such spaces would provide a firm foundation for a more stable, and useful, humanitarian effort within the country that does not disenfranchise large groups of the Syrian population.

This must be done carefully. The debacle of international intervention in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina illustrated that if formal, fortified areas are created, they can have two negative side-effects. First, such areas attract large numbers of vulnerable persons, which serves to concentrate them for their enemies. Second, if the area is seen as a pro-opposition ‘space,’ the Assad government is unlikely to stand for its existence because it has labelled opposition groups as ‘terrorists.’ This means it is not the time to heed earlierarguments for fortified ‘safe-areas’ in Syria. Instead, Western negotiators should help opposition groups negotiate the protection of Syrian public spaces. Doing so would allow the agency of various groups in Syria – both formal opposition forces and the Syrian population itself – a space in which to live and engage in political activism. This would serve as the true foundation of a lasting agreement. If this is not accomplished, the numerous refugees and IDPs will remain dispossessed politically and forced to live a subsistence dependent upon aid provided by various agencies that prevents them from being involved in the politics of any solution to Syria’s conflict let alone its reconstruction or future.