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Middle East and Africa

Syria, mediation is necessary

The appeal for peace that Pope Francis made during the Angelus on September 12, and the day of prayer and fasting that followed gave new hope to the diplomacy at a time when it seemed that a military attack had already been decided. But is a diplomatic solution really possible after the agreement between Russia and the US? Can the principles of refusing violence and seeking dialogue be applied to the Syrian conflict? From 2 to 9 September Oasis spoke with many people in Jordan and Lebanon, Christians and Muslims, politicians and ordinary people, intellectuals and refugees. The opinions expressed were quite diverse, even disorientating. But in the end the same question kept on emerging, either explicitly or implicitly throughout our journey.



First of all it is opportune to make a simple, if obvious, introduction: the war, the difference between legitimate defense and aggression, between non violent action and its limits, takes on a very different meaning when, instead of reasoning in the abstract, you meet a Syrian professor who cannot go back to his family because the area he comes from is under threat by the rebels or when you hear accounts of the destruction of whole cities. When you live, as in Lebanon, under the menace of bombs, or as in Jordan you have to come to terms with a refugee camp which, in two years, has become the fourth city of the country. Take away the deserts, and the near Middle East becomes very small. In the North of Jordan you can hear the Damascus radio transmitting patriotic songs, and in southern Lebanon just a thin wall of cement watched over by the ‘blue helmets’ separates Hezbollah from Israel. The war is on the doorstep even if the local people are the first to forget this.



In this context, local opinion is divided. The range of options goes from the unconditioned support of the Damascus regime to the support of its military upheaval, through never-ending negotiations or international intervention, but even more cynically supporting an ‘attack-show’ of limited effects but perhaps with a few bombs thrown in ‘by mistake’ on the Alqaedian rebels. The warmongers are not the only ones supporting an American armed intervention, but also those who want peace and who discuss rationally. For example that the Syrian regime has been using the diplomacy of blackmail for years and was the first to push the situation towards a violent and confessional involution. Assad’s complaints about the terrorists is somewhat paradoxical: he was the one who financed them during the Iraq war. Furthermore, there is not much sense for the minority groups to appeal to a regime which only protects itself and its own, especially in such an unfavourable demographic relation.



And then there is the question of casus belli, chemical weapons that indiscriminately strike without giving civilians any possibility of escaping. On principle everyone condemns this, but immediately the concept of conspiracy takes over so that nothing is ever what it seems. See the horrific pictures of children killed by chemical weapons, and they say that it could be the rebels who simulated the attack. See the destroyed crosses of Ma’lula, the symbol city of local Christianity and they tell you that it could have been the government of Damascus that carried out the attack. The truth seems to evaporate, facts fade before partisan interpretations.



Yet some certainties remain. The first certainty is that Syria is destroyed and in upheaval and this is admitted by all. The second is that there are local and imported arms everywhere, and that no one worries about using them. The third is that the question of democracy is no longer under discussion. The question is whether to overthrow Assad or not, but even those in favour of his downfall must recognize that, because of a regime that has lasted 50 years, the political structure is almost inexistent, and the Jihadi presence is a dark reality. In the long run the Syrian conflict is like a cancer devouring the Middle East and the danger of the widening of this conflict is not so remote. For some Hezbollah could not avoid reacting to an American attack and this would inevitably trigger off a reaction by Israel. For others instead, the joining of forces should encourage the Party of God to withhold from too strong a reaction. But the fact that many leaders in Beirut see a probable American intervention in Syria only in function of what they would gain politically – a tremendous illusion which fifty years of civil war has not managed to cancel – leaves hope for nothing good. Therefore the widening of the conflict seems to be a very probable consequence of a unilateral and purely military intervention.



Therefore in such a situation, having listened to the pros and cons, a diplomatic approach seems to be the most sensible. To give military support to one side rather than the other would in fact mean to ignore the evidence, like those who see Assad as a champion of laity or continue to see the rebels as misunderstood democratic activists. But also to allow the situation to precipitate would be morally unacceptable and politically wrong because it is already dangerously involving nearby countries. So all that is left to the great powers is to abandon the logic of patronage and proxy war and to try to contain the damage instead of continuing to increase it. But it is important to keep in mind that the negotiation possible today is that between local regional powers while, at present, an agreement between the diverse groups of the rebels and the regime seems almost impossible.



Therefore, if we must realistically recognize the fact that in Syria today the conditions do not exist for a process of reconciliation, whereas an international agreement is possible to stop supplying arms to the forces involved, within which an agreement on the use of chemical arms would take priority. In this way the conflict would lose intensity and be less destructive for the benefit of civilians and their suffering country. Only then, when the Syrians have ceased to hope in the United States or in Russia, in Turkey, in Iran or Saudi Arabia and in their generous supplies of arms, can we hope to reopen internal negotiations.