The fact that civilians are suffering from violence in Syria is undisputed. Beyond that, it is hard to know what is fact, and what is constructed from a familiar narrative of a “responsibility to protect” civilians faced with the threat of atrocity.
The “R2P” narrative follows a familiar plotline: bad government continues offensives designed to cower unarmed civilians into submission or worse while the UN Security Council, due to Chinese and Russian foot-dragging, flounders, at best passing toothless resolutions. This situation, so the story goes, will continue with civilians dying en masse until or unless the UNSC manages to eek out enough consensus to support more direct action, or NATO circumvents the UN altogether and launches an unlawful but morally legitimate action.
But before we can accept this tale, we might ask three questions: Did violence escalate under the Kofi Annan ceasefire plan? If it did, why? And why are political leaders and opinion makers reluctant to describe the situation as civil war? The answers are related.
First, did violence escalate under the Annan plan, which was the best—in fact, the only–chance for a peaceful resolution of what will likely become an increasingly brutal civil war? Or did we rather perceive that violence was increasing, based on better media coverage? Assessing facts during an on-going conflict is always partially a guessing game. Fortunately, we have better statistics than in past conflicts, due to better telecommunications and websites where crowd-sourced reports can be aggregated. One has to look at trends rather than hard numbers to analyse how a conflict is moving. A significant trend that has not received much attention can be found in information released by the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights: the steady increase in casualties suffered by the Syrian government forces during the ceasefire period at the same time that overall violence decreased by 36% from the previous peak.
The storyline of an increase in violence is therefore more complicated than it appears at first sight. Some forms of violence are increasing—specifically, battles between combatants. Why might this be so?
As reported throughout the Spring, since the “Friends of Syria” meeting on April 1, 2012, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who at the time lost the public argument to arm the rebels reportedly have been arming them anyway. The pace and timeline of this support is not entirely clear, but its fact by summer 2012 is well-established.
This compels us to ask: who is responsible for the rebels adhering to the ceasefire?
On the other side, are Iran and Russia providing various degrees of military assistance to the Syrian government. The New York Times reports that the U.S. is now on the ground determining who are what Mahmood Mamdani once termed “good Muslims” amongst the rebels and making sure that they not “bad Muslims” receive the weapons that will likely be adequate only to prolong the conflict.
Why is the situation not treated as a civil war? As Barbara Walter and Elizabeth Martin argue, “Syria has been in the midst of a civil war since at least July of last year yet no one wants to call it that.” Why? They suggest that: “Whenever the world refuses to call a spade a spade it’s because the world doesn’t want to get involved. The less willing outside states are to acknowledge the true extent of the crisis, the less pressure there will be to intervene.”
This argument forgets that today’s license for intervention is issued by the department of civilian protection. The more a situation looks like a government using asymmetric force against unarmed civilians, the stronger is the argument for intervention. The more a situation looks like two sides, each supported by outsiders attempting to secure their regional power base, the more difficult it is to conjure intervention.
Pointing out the political realities of a situation is not to minimize or ignore the fact that the crisis began with government crackdowns on protesters nor that the government possesses greater firepower than the opposition and is quite willing to use it. However, the civilian protection mantel does not support escalating the conflict. It may, however, have supported Kofi Annan’s efforts to bring the all of the outside players—including Iran—to the table to find a solution to violence, leaving the political debates for table work rather than battlefield.
I am looking forward to the day when the civilian protection network prioritizes civilian protection and throws its weight behind efforts to find solutions that de-escalate violence and then allow political processes to address political agendas. This day hasn’t arrived. And the U.S. position was predictably dismissive of Annan’s suggestion: “The red line for us was the inclusion of Iran,” Clinton told an audience at the Brookings Institution. “We thought that would be a grave error since we know that Iran is not only supporting the Assad regime, but actively mentoring, leading, encouraging not merely the regular army, but the militias that are springing up, engaging in sectarian conflict.” No mention, of course, of other non-democratic states in the region who have been fueling the violence to pursue their own agendas.
In the meantime, it seems that civilian protection arguments provide cover for old-fashioned power politics that determine the escalation of violence.
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