The Global Citizen: Syria
On Friday reports surfaced that U.N. documents obtained by Foreign Policy show that the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been consistently cutting off food supplies to opposition-held areas in order to starve rebels and their supporters into submission. This is a clear-cut war crime under the Geneva Conventions and the UN Security Council needs to provide what evidence it has for this and other crimes against humanity in a referral to the International Criminal Court.
In recent years, we’ve come to recognize that the world is interconnected, perhaps in ways and on a scale that it never has been before. We live together and affect each other on the same small planet and we are all fundamentally equal regardless of where we are born. Global justice is about deciding how the institutions those interactions create, formal and informal, social, political, and economic, should be managed in a just, equitable way, where everyone is treated fairly and no one is abused.
Though the month of February is barely a week old, for the people of Lebanon it has already seen two separate bombings in the capital of Beirut. The back-to-back attacks follow a January characterized by car and suicide bombings, culminating in a “declaration of war” by Al-Qaeda against Lebanese Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah.
In a country still plagued by memories of the 1975-1990 Civil War between Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’ites, many fear that the violence in neighboring Syria may stir up sectarian tensions once more. Hezbollah has been fighting to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for almost a year, while the majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis support varying factions within the rebel movement. Lebanon’s Christians, who make up almost 40% of the country’s population, have not been uniformly partial to either party.
As Sunni and Shi’ite combatants continue to trade retaliatory attacks that cost innocent lives, there are worrying signs that more and more civilians are being drawn in to the budding conflict. In a disturbing video provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a newborn infant is seen being dressed in military fatigues and a Hezbollah beret, “a potential resistance fighter from the first few hours of his life.”
Saudi Arabia is taking steps to reduce its footprint in Syria. Al Jazerra reported this morning that a royal decree makes it punishable for Saudi citizens to participate in foreign conflicts. I believe many will wholeheartedly support this announcement as, in the context of the Syrian civil war, it could promote regional stability and sovereignty.
If other surrounding nations follow suit, we may see greater progress on the ground and in Geneva. The Syrian civil war is complicated in large part due to the foreign fighters from extremist groups setting up operations. These groups cloud the view of the opposition by United States and other negotiators as a whole. Fewer factions and divisive groups contending within the Syria conflict increases the potential for a lasting settlement as there will be fewer parties to satisfy. It may also facilitate access to for relief aid to those most in need.
While my initial reaction to the announcement of this decree is optimistic, we should remain wary and watch closely on how Saudi Arabia enforces it.
The United Nations-League of Arab States Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has announced a break in the Geneva II negotiations until 10 February 2014, noting they have been "a modest beginning on which we can build." It was expected that Geneva II would be long and difficult. Geneva I had been relatively easy since only the Russians and Americans were engaged and both had the "Yemen model" in mind: the president goes into a safe exile, a slightly broader transition government is formed, but no reforms though life is a bit better than before.
Geneva II was predicted to be more difficult as Syrians would participate in the discussion - including the government and some opposition factions. Over forty states attended the start, some because they were directly concerned, others to give encouragement. The official Syrian delegations met in the UN Palais des Nations but not always together. Other interested parties - uninvited opposition groups, Kurds, Lebanese - met in quiet restaurants and hotel rooms. Some Iranian diplomats left with their President to attend Davos, while others stayed to observe.
The opening statements of Syrian peace talks which I mentioned in my post on Wednesday alluded to bumpy roads ahead. It turns out “bumpy” might have been an understatement.
Geneva II was almost steered right off a cliff before gaining any momentum. The Syrian opposition and the Syrian Government were refusing to meet face-to-face. Syrian opposition demanded the Government agree to the June 30, 2012 Geneva communiqué, which called for a transitional government body put into place, and that Assad step down from power. In response, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem denounced the idea of Assad’s removal as the perquisites for discussions.
But in a sudden turn of events, United Nations and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi worked his magic and announced both sides have agreed to the Geneva communiqué and will continue negotiations. Still, there is no settlement on whether or not Assad will leave his office.
It’s been said the Geneva II talks have gotten off to a bumpy start, but – who thought they’d start smoothly? These talks resemble Cold War relations – the U.S. and Russia supporting opposite sides in a foreign conflict. In the realm of diplomacy, this leads to both sides beginning boldly since they have powerful international support.
The Syrian Government, represented by Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, has rejected the replacement of the Assad regime – an unacceptable starting point for the Western and opposition negotiators. The government defends this position by referring to the extremist opposition groups and terrorists which it has been fighting. Concerns that a pre-emptive removal of Assad as part of the peace talks might enable radicals groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS to seize control of the government makes this a valid argument for some.
It’s days like these that I am dismayed at what the American public chooses to focus its attention on. The buzz on Capitol Hill seems to be on anything but the worst humanitarian crisis in recent years that is taking place in Syria. The multitude of humanitarian issues resulting from the civil war there will be the discussed during peace talks next Wednesday (January 22), and the United States' role in addressing them is being carried largely by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Mr. Kerry and his team have their hands full, maybe overflowing. A few of the most pressing issues the State Department is handling include: preparing the stage for Syrian peace talks; maintaining promising relations with Iran; continuing efforts in Israeli-Palestinian peace; and working with Russia, which is perfectly opposed to U.S. interests on each matter. What’s more is that these complex concerns are intricately intertwined. Secretary Kerry's capabilites will be put to the test, but I feel secure he is up to the challenge; the coming months will either result in historic diplomatic achievements or a humanitarian and regional security disaster. The scale of importance is huge – absence of progress would likely demoralize all other diplomatic efforts in the region.
U.S. officials now believe up to 12 Russian made Yakhont missiles have been smuggled from Syrian Government hands to Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to a report by ForeignPolicy.com. In addition to possibly exacerbating regional tension, this flags should also concern Russian security officials and advocates for legal norms regarding arms trade. In 2007 Russia signed a contract with Syria that transfers Yakhont missiles, which fly at speeds capable of evading radar detection, to the Syrian government. This contract calls for the transfer of these weapons to cease if any leave direct Syrian control.
The U.S. government has previously made clear to Russia that the diversion of Russian-supplied missiles out of Syrian control directly violates Russia’s 2007 contract with Syria. Though potentially fueling a civil war and enabling the Assad regime to commit war crimes, Russian officials have stated that it is legally obligated to fulfill contracts agreed to prior to Syria’s civil war. The violation of this "end user agreement" should allow Russia to halt any further transfer of weapons into the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The transfer of Yakhont missiles to Hezbollah may prove to be the most legally binding reason for Russia to end weapon sales to the Syrian Government.
Tomorrow at 10 AM, the General Assembly will hold an extraordinary election to fill the Security Council seat rejected by Saudi Arabia. Because Jordan is the only candidate, it will easily win the election; its record in international affairs would make it a solid candidate in any election. Whether winning is good for Jordan is another question.
The day after its election to the Security Council in October the Saudi Foreign Ministry rejected that seat due to the Council’s alleged repeated failures in the Middle East. While the Saudi decision was baffling, and the implications complex, once Saudi Arabia formally declined the seat a special election was scheduled to place a different member state at the Council.
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