International Relations Security Foreign policy

Mind the Neighbors

Joint UN/AL Special Envoy on Syria briefs press
Kofi Annan, joint UN/AL Special Envoy on Syria briefs press

PRINCETON – The conventional wisdom last week on whether Syria would comply with former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan was that it was up to Russia. We were reverting to Cold War politics, in which the West was unwilling to use force and Russia was willing to keep arming and supporting its client. Thus, Russia held the trump card: the choice of how much pressure it was willing to put on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to comply with the plan.

If this view were correct, Iran would surely be holding an equally powerful hand. Annan, after all, traveled to Tehran as well. Traditional balance-of-power geopolitics, it seems, is alive and well.

But this is, at best, a partial view that obscures as much as it reveals. In particular, it misses the crucial and growing importance of regional politics and institutions.

Human Rights Humanitarian Issues

Syria: Appeasement in Disguise?

Kofi Annan was in New York on 16 March to brief the Security Council on the mess that is Syria. But whatever (limited) hopes there might be of his ability to negotiate an end to the violence, the humanitarian mission also disguises a depressing reality: short of appeasement, the international community has no good strategy for responding to a well-protected regime intent on committing criminal acts.

Debates on what to do about Syria have – on the surface at least – moved on apace since the China/Russia veto last month (which was, in any case, over-hyped). Everyone seems to agree that Bashar al-Assad needs to stop killing and torturing civilians. As Ban Ki Moon put it on the anniversary of the uprising, “the status quo in Syria is indefensible”. In the rarefied domain of international politics, the widespread acceptance of this point counts as a victory. But beyond this limited solidarity, there is scant agreement over what practical steps to take.

Government Conflict

Ethnic Minorities: Tipping the Scales in Syria?

Church next to a mosque in Hama, Syria. Photo: fchmksfkcb/flickr

Last month’s assassination of Kurdish activist Mashaal Tammo has put the spotlight on Syria’s almost forgotten Kurdish minority. Their involvement in the uprisings had been considerably low up to this point, propelled by fears that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad would ruthlessly put down Kurdish participation in the protests. But after the death of Tammo, a prominent opposition figure and founding member of the Syrian National Council, a wave of outrage has swept across the Kurdish population. This brought about the most intense protests and demonstrations of this ethnic minority since the beginning of the uprisings in March and might just mark a tipping point for the highly fragmented Syrian opposition.

While opposition movements of the Arab Spring have been characterized as heterogeneous and unstructured, Syria’s opposition seems particularly patchy. Approximately 40 percent of the population do not belong to the Sunni majority. Shia Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Jews and Ismaelites all have their own political agendas. One of the main reasons why Assad has managed to remain in power for so long is because he was backed by the country’s minorities. In exchange, he implemented laws and policies to secure the minorities from the Sunni majority.


Altruism: Chimpanzees 1, President Assad 0

Bananas and Bullets (Photos: Fernando Stankuns/flickr, left, Rudy Lara/flickr, right)

In a news report yesterday, the International Business Times outlined that an Emory University study has found that chimpanzees are actually “genuinely altruistic animals that can show unselfish concern for the welfare of others”. The experiment, in which chimpanzees had to decide whether or not to share banana slices with their neighbours in adjoining cages, observed that if given the opportunity, a chimpanzee will usually choose to act in a way that aids its fellow chimpanzees, rather than choose to act selfishly to receive an exclusive personal gain.

In another unrelated report yesterday, the BBC announced that the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, had ordered tanks to attack the north-western Syrian towns of Taftanaz, Sermin, and Binnish, with several citizens reportedly killed in the attacks. In addition, the report estimated that more than 1700 Syrians had been killed since the uprisings began in mid-March, and over 10,000 people had been arrested. It further outlined that in a statement addressing the current situation in his country, President Assad stipulated he would not relent in pursuing “terrorist groups”.

Consequently, when reading these two reports in succession, one cannot help but ask: if even a modest chimpanzee can act altruistically towards his fellow species,  how come Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to choose a course of action that focuses solely on his political self-preservation,  rather than the communal preservation of the people he governs?

Government History Human Rights

Syrian Kurds – A Struggle in the Face of Government Repression

Kurdish area in the Middle East, CIA/University of Texas Libraries (1986)

On 21 March of this year, Syrian security forces opened fire on a crowd of over 5,000 in the northern town of Ar-Raqqah. The crowd had gathered to celebrate the Kurdish New Year as three people, including a 15-year-old girl, were killed. Over 50 were injured. Yet this incident was just the last in a long list of examples of the repression of the largest national minority in Syria – the Syrian Kurdish population.

Kurds in Syria occupy the lowest social rank among the country’s minorities. Estimated at approximately 1.7 million, the Syrian Kurds make up roughly 12 percent of the country’s population. Yet the Kurds living in Syria are not recognized as an ethnic group in their own right, and many not even as Syrian citizens. Their cultural and civil rights are withheld from them, while their political parties and organizations are forbidden.