By Jonathan Power
The long war is almost over in Syria. Tyranny has won. Violence has won. Most have suffered, many unspeakably. For too long all sides were stalemated by each other’s brutality. Now the government of Bashar Al-Assad has come out on top, aided by Russia and Iran
What to do next? On March 12, 2019 the EU member states start their three-day third annual Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, co-chaired by the UN. It’s time for some radical re-thinking. Well-wishing for good things like the persecution of war crimes is whistling in the wind, at least for now.
We are facing a fait accompli and renewed realization that the outside world does not have much leverage, apart from Russia and Iran, and even their influence is circumscribed.
Yet, understandably, EU countries insist that in return for helping to re-build Syria the government must commit itself to a human rights agenda – the freeing of political prisoners, the end of torture and capital punishment, free elections, judicial reform, enshrining in law the right to protest and the devolution of power to town and village councils, even if it means giving opposition groups some political power.
From time to time they also insist on what is manifestly impossible, the stepping down of President Assad. Under the Geneva peace talks, set up by UN Resolution 2254 passed in December 2015, the regime and the opposition are supposed to agree to a joint committee to write a new constitution.
All this is good. Encourage it, yes. Insist on it right now, no. The biggest and most important human rights at stake in post-war Syria are the right to life, good health and education, the right to family life, the right to a home and the right to a job. A few years ago, Amnesty International widened its list of necessary human rights from the issues of political prisoners, torture and capital punishment to these broader social rights traditionally supported as the priority by Communist and Third World governments. There should never have been a contradiction in the first place.
For Syria today, it is these social rights that must be tackled first. It is indeed in the EU’s own interest to do it this way. The migrants who fled en masse to Europe three and a half years ago have only shallow roots in their host countries. Only a minority has learnt the language well and many have jobs way below their qualifications. They are not the kind of migrants – like the Africans, Bangladeshis or Algerians – who have dreamed all their lives of migrating like Dick Whittington and who as soon as they get the chance are off to search for a better life. Syrians before the war rarely migrated except to neighbouring Lebanon.
Today most, I suggest, would gladly uproot from Germany, Sweden or wherever and go back home. They want to be close to the grandparents they left behind. They want to get hold again of their traditional home and the plot of land in their old village that has been in the family for generations. If they live in the town or city, they want too the apartment they have probably built themselves with their own sweat. They want their children to grow up as Syrians who live according to the norms of Islamic and Syrian culture.
We should encourage them to go. We should help rebuild Syria as fast as it can be done, redirecting the money allocated to settling refugees to re-starting home building, school and medical services in Syria.
This is what Russia has been arguing for and it is right. The last months in the run up to the EU conference the east European members plus Italy and Greece, the two major destination countries, have been arguing the same. A southern European diplomat is quoted in the current issue of Foreign Policy as saying, “If you want the refugees to leave, if you want to stop a second wave of refugees, if you want to end the suffering of the internally displaced, if you want to tackle ISIS in Europe – and they are there – then you need to deal with the Syrian government.”
But the Germans, French, Scandinavians, Dutch and British have been taking a politically correct stance – before it receives substantial aid Syria has to commit itself to the full panoply of human rights and to show by its actions that it is following through. Moreover, the EU insists on maintaining counterproductive economic sanctions and (the still necessary) sanctions on high-ranking Syrians.
It’s hard for us to accept that Assad has won this bestial conflict but to stop the innocent and the opposition from further punishment we have to aid the regime to do what it says it now wants to do, which is rebuild Syria. The rest is for another day.