Saturday, March 24

Ambassador van Dam, negotiation would be useless if the war was always a foreign-led effort

"When democracies confront dictatorships like the Syrian regime, the chance of positive results can be higher by communicating with it than by refusing to communicate with it."

The  quote is from Ambassador Nikolaos van Dam's lecture at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna, March 7, 2018; the full transcript was published March 8 by Syria Comment (edited by Joshua Landis) and titled Foreign intervention in Syria: Isn't it time to admit that the war against the Syrian regime is lost? 

Ambassador van Dam is a Dutch career diplomat (Indonesia, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq) who served as the Netherlands' Special Envoy to Syria from 2015-2016 and came to specialize in observing the Syrian conflict. His latest book is Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017). 

I have not read his book but van Dam is, to my reading of his lecture, intelligent and well-informed about Syria and brought his considerable experience as a diplomat to bear in his argument that no matter how grim the conflict, the channels of communication must be kept open by both sides.

However, I venture this is one of those times when one's point of view as a diplomat is an impediment to clear seeing. If, as van Dam indicates, the Syrian conflict was from the early days actually fueled by foreign governments in a bid to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and his government, attempts at communication would have always been useless because the regime change plotters were never sincere; they weren't interested in reaching a compromise.     

The ambassador might reply that one should never give up on attempts at negotiation no matter how insincere the parties, and that the catastrophe in Syria is the best argument to keep trying. 

I think that could be true for the local parties in conflicts. But when powerful governments bent on regime change are involved, something much stronger than negotiation also needs to be deployed. The aims of the foreign governments party to regime change need to be exposed for the public to see. In a democracy, this is the task of the press and government officials.

But in the case of Syria the outside governments trying for regime change have been at least three NATO members -- the USA, France, and Turkey -- and at least two very rich Gulf Arab governments -- Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 

The upshot is that even today there has been no official acknowledgement in democratic countries of the role played in Syria by foreign interventionists. And there is scant reference to the situation in the mainstream American press -- and certainly not enough references to awaken the majority in the American public to the true situation.

The great irony is that many Americans at this time have reasons to believe the current U.S. President, Donald Trump, was the target of a nonviolent coup attempt engineered by elements in the Department of Justice, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation. If the belief is borne out by more evidence, this could be termed Washington's propensity for regime change come home to roost.

So while it's important to attempt to maintain dialogues in the face of even the most seemingly intractable armed conflicts, here I am reminded of the old Protestant saying, "Pray, but row away from the rocks."

The advice would go double if the Trump regime is planning to win the war against the Assad regime by murdering Assad.

All this noted, I found Ambassador van Dam's lecture worthwhile and quote extensively from it below. I've omitted the first part, which is about how the Baathists got established in Syria, and skipped over a few other passages; this in order to focus on his enumerations of the grim and ongoing consequences of the Syrian conflict. The added emphasis throughout is mine.

By Nikolaos van Dam
March 7, 2018


But political isolation of the Damascus regime was bound to be unsuccessful.

The alternative was to militarily defeat the Syrian regime, after which talks would not be necessary anymore. But direct military intervention was rejected in the democracies involved, just as well.

Nevertheless, by way of an alternative, various Western and Arab governments chose to militarily intervene indirectly, by arming, financing and politically supporting the various Syrian opposition groups; but this turned out not to be enough to topple the regime. And I leave out of consideration here whether an alternative regime would have been much better. 

Most foreign governments claimed that they wanted a political solution, and this was true in principle. But they only wanted a political solution that would lead to regime change, and this turned out to be impossible without sufficient military means. Such military interventions were actually in violation of international law which bars UN member states from supporting military action to overthrow other members’ governments.[1] 

The results of indirect military intervention have been just as disastrous as direct military intervention would have been: notably almost half a million dead, millions of refugees, a country in ruins and a nation destroyed to a great extent.

Reproaching foreign countries for giving insufficient support to help topple the regime, whereas simultaneously being against any military intervention appears to be contradictory. Let me therefore clarify what I mean. I am strongly against military interventions in general because there are so many examples which illustrate that such interventions mainly lead to disaster. My point is that the countries that encouraged the military opposition to confront the Syrian regime, without sufficiently arming them or sufficiently coordinating their militarily actions, were in practice leading many of the opposition military into the trap of death.


Most of the Syrian opposition at the time were not able to accept any negotiations with the regime, not only because of their feelings and emotions towards the regime, but also because they still expected to receive strong foreign support, as happened in Libya, which caused the fall and death of Libyan leader al-Qadhafi.

Many demonstrators wanted to attract foreign attention via the media in the hope of triggering foreign help, but the support they wanted did not come as expected.

With some hindsight, and purely theoretically speaking, many Syrians might not have started the Syrian Revolution, had they been aware of the disastrous consequences beforehand. [Pundita note: I strongly believe this was the case, based on numerous anecdotes from Syrians I've read during the years of the war.] But in reality, things do not work that way.


It should go without saying that those who confront the Syrian regime with a limited will and limited means must also set limited goals if they are to accomplish even a limited amount of what they want to achieve. Yet, even after seven years of bloody war, and well over 450,000 dead, many Western and Arab politicians still tend to be blinded, to some extent at least, by wishful thinking, as a result of which they officially keep approaching the conflict in Syria from a supposedly moral high ground. They have not been prepared to accept the basic reality, that with a limited will and limited means only limited goals can be achieved. 

Foreign leaders either ignore these basics or pretend not to be aware of them. By continuing to maintain so-called ethically and politically correct points of view concerning justice, without, however, providing the necessary means to help realize their just aims, various Western and Arab politicians indirectly have helped the war to continue with all its dead, refugees and destruction.


The position of Qatar, which has been one of the key supporters of the civilian and military opposition for a long time, changed as well in October 2017, particularly after the other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council imposed sanctions against it with the accusation that Qatar had been supporting terrorist organizations in Syria. 

Former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani, in a reaction, confided that the support of Qatar for the Syrian opposition had earlier on been fully coordinated with Saudi Arabia, and that all their common support went via Turkey, where further arms distributions were coordinated with the United States, together with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. 

Shaykh Hamad denied having provided any support to the Islamic State (Da’ish), and that in [any?] case it would have ended up in the hands of the al-Qa’ida related Jabhat al-Nusra, which apparently had been the case, this would have been stopped, because that would have been a mistake. Saudi Arabia and Qatar had focused on, what he called ‘the liberation of Syria’, but when the two countries started to quarrel over their common ‘prey’ (by which he meant Bashar al-Asad and the Syrian regime), the prey escaped. 

Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim added that it would be okay if al-Asad would stay on if the Saudis wanted this. After all, Qatar used to be friends with al-Asad. Shaykh Hamad criticized that there had not been a consequent policy between Qatar and Saudi Arabia but did not mind to change course if past policies turned out to have been a mistake.[10] This change in policy happened after more than 450,000 victims had fallen and was apparently mainly the result of a dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, not because of a spontaneous change of views, or special feelings for the Syrian people.

As far as negotiations were concerned, the Syrian opposition has already been communicating with the Syrian regime for several years through the successive United Nations Special Envoys for Syria, but they did so under pre-conditions that made any serious negotiations impossible, because they demanded as a kind of pre-condition that President al-Asad and those of his regime with blood on their hands should leave and should be excluded from playing any role in Syria’s future and should be courtmartialed. These demands may seem fully understandable, but they were unrealistic, because they guaranteed that any compromise or serious negotiations with the regime were excluded. 

Moreover, the fate of president al-Asad is not at all mentioned in the Geneva Communique (2012), which is one of the main internationally agreed cornerstones of the intra-Syrian negotiations.

If, after some seven years of bloodshed, some Arab and Western leaders decide to change course and decide that al-Asad should be accepted as staying in power in Syria and would think it opportune to reestablish relations and to reopen embassies in Damascus, they should not expect the Syrian regime to welcome them back. On the contrary, such overtures would most probably be rejected at first, until political accounts are settled, because the regime considers the foreign interference and support for the armed opposition as one of the principal reasons why the Syrian War has lasted that long.

Any international reconstruction aid could only be channeled to government-controlled areas with the approval of the regime. And reconstruction efforts in areas not under regime control run the risk of coming under fire in case these areas would be reconquered by the regime.

What might perhaps have been achieved through dialogue with the regime in the earlier stages of the Syrian Revolution, became more and more difficult later on with all the killing and destruction that has occurred. The longer the war lasted, the more difficult it has become to negotiate and reach any compromise.

One might also argue that the regime has never been interested in any dialogue whatsoever that would have led to drastic political changes or reform but it has – in my opinion – not been tried long enough. 

[Pundita note:  Damascus did institute several reforms, including a new constitution but these weren't enough, and could never have been enough, for the foreign parties wanting control of Syria.]

The serious efforts in the beginning should have been continued. Sometimes one should even make a serious effort if one is not fully convinced of the possibilities of achieving success.

Considering the millions of Syrian refugees, one would logically speaking expect that most of them will return to Syria, once the war is over, but realities may turn out to be quite different. In particular those refugees who are suspected of having been active against the regime – most of them Sunnis – may not be allowed to return, certainly not in the shorter run when the economic prospects are dim.

Syria expert Fabrice Balanche suggests that president al-Asad even might not want the return of millions of refugees, because Syria was already overpopulated before the Syrian War that started in 2011, and suffered from severe economic problems, water shortages and other issues that helped trigger the Syrian Revolution. Refusing the reentry of millions of Syrian refugees might, according to this vision, give Syria the opportunity of a new start with a smaller population which, in the thinking of the regime, might ‘give Syria some air’.[11] 
Moreover, it can be expected that refugees wanting to return to Syria may have to prove that they were loyal to the regime and not against it. All this might imply rigorous demographic changes to the disadvantage of the Syrian Sunni population.

Fabrice Balanche has convincingly demonstrated that, although various other factors have played a role as well, the sectarian divide in Syria should not be ignored, because it is a key issue, with the opposition areas being mainly Sunni, and the areas numerically dominated by minorities being pro-regime.[12] This divide can have serious implications for the future once the Syrian War would be over.

Remarkable is also that there has not been any compromise whatsoever between the Syrian regime and the opposition inside the country. 

[Pundita note: Damascus has worked out compromises with many thousands of insurgents. The author might be speaking of the major opposition leadership, which I believe is controlled by various foreign governments; e.g., Saudi Arabia.]

And some opposition leaders who were originally operating from inside the country, like Lu’ayy Husayn, leader of Building the Syrian State, have been sentenced to long term imprisonment in absentia, making it impossible for them to return.

Prominent opposition members abroad who publicly repented their opposition to the regime and wanted to come back to Syria were refused entry into their home country, although there have been exceptions.[13]

I have hardly touched on the role of Russia and Iran in the conflict and will do so only very shortly. The US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 has led to a war, the end of which after 15 years is by far not in sight. By removing president Saddam Hussein, they have laid out a red carpet for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The – direct or indirect – foreign military interventions in Syria have caused the position of Russia to be strengthened considerably. The main reason for Russia to intervene was to keep its ally, the regime, in power. Without other foreign interventions in Syria trying to effectuate regime change, Russia would have had no reason to intervene the way it did since 2015. 

What is in it for the regime to have a political solution instead of a military one? It cannot stay in power forever, and therefore it is in its interest to help establish a new Syria that is inclusive for all Syrians in such a way that a new revolution or settlement of accounts in the form of revenge is avoided. The regime should have done so long before the revolution started, or directly afterwards, but Bashar al-Asad and his supporters choose the path of violent suppression.  [Pundita note: I disagree with this view of Assad's actions in the early years of the revolution.]

Syria expert David Lesch has suggested that al-Asad hesitated in the beginning of the Revolution between a more lenient approach and a violent crackdown by government forces. It was a ‘fateful decision’ not to have seriously explored the road of reform and reconciliation in the beginning, certainly when taking into account the disastrous aftermath.[14] 

Nevertheless, it is far from certain whether an announcement in the beginning by the president of reform measures would really have satisfied the demonstrators as long as the Syrian dictatorship persisted. After all, the demonstrators were overwhelmed by enthusiasm as a result of the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where the presidents had fallen.

Now it has become much more difficult to effectuate drastic reform measures. But this in itself is no reason not to seriously try to achieve it. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the regime will make serious efforts in this direction because this could imply undermining its own position, as would have been the case in the beginning of the Syrian Revolution.

Whereas the common sectarian, regional and family or tribal backgrounds of the main Ba’thist rulers have been key to the strength of the regime, their Alawi sectarian background has also inherently been one of its main weaknesses. The ‘Alawi factor’ is hindering a peaceful transformation from Syrian dictatorship towards a more widely representative regime. This ‘Alawi Gordian knot’ should therefore be disentangled in order to establish trust between all Syrian population groups, irrespective of their religious or ethnic background.

I strongly doubt, however, whether the regime would be prepared to cut this ‘Alawi Gordian knot’, because it has always been essential for its survival.

Therefore, even if the regime will win the war, which seems likely, the future prospects for peace in Syria look very grim.


See the Syria Comment website for lecture footnotes.


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