Assad with crew
Assad with crew
Last updated: April 29, 2013
Sonia Mansour Robaey: The politics of war and dialogue

"By asking Assad to leave before any conversation takes place, external actors are seeking subjugation, not dialogue"

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Dialogue in Syria is possible between Syrians and its absence is due to the hijacking of the Syrian opposition’s agenda by external state actors who have been conducting foreign policies through intimidation and humiliation to justify wars of intervention and who have no stakes in dialogue.

On December 26 and 27, 2012, two Syrian opposition activists made public their private conversations on Twitter with the country’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi. Makdissi no longer occupies this function and his whereabouts have been unknown since early December.

The conversations took place in July 2012. This is an important month in the Syrian crisis timeline: three security personnel were assassinated in Damascus, rebels took hold of some neighbourhoods around Aleppo and Damascus, and there was hope among opposition activists that these events would tip the balance in their favour. Indeed, a Google search of “Assad’s days are numbered,” a formula that has been uttered by many opposition activists and Western and Arab officials since the beginning of the crisis, returns the most results for July 2012.

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Also, a mainstream media Google search for July 2012 in Syria presents a grim picture of a regime that is crumbling and under siege. This is also the month when Israel and the West voiced concern about Syria’s alleged chemical weapons. As the talk of chemical weapons grew louder, Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, sought to reassure Syrians: “any stock of WMD or unconventional weapons that the Syrian Army possesses will never, never be used against the Syrian people or civilians during this crisis, under any circumstances. These weapons are made to be used strictly and only in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Makdissi’s statement was considered to be the most direct admission from a Syrian official that Syria possesses chemical weapons, an admission that was also considered as a threat to use these weapons against external aggressors.

The spokesman’s conversations with the activists via Twitter had been ongoing when he made the statement. The published exchange between Makdissi and Rami Jarrah, who tweets under the pseudonym @AlexanderPageSy, takes place between July 20 and July 22, 2012, just before Makdissi’s statement on July 23. The published exchange between Makdissi and another activist, who tweets under the pseudonym @edwardedark, is not dated but comes after Makdissi’s statement on chemical weapons and the international reaction.

Jarrah sends Makdissi a link to a video, now removed from YouTube, in which "Assad thugs" allegedly “execute peaceful protesters on the first day of Ramadan.” This was accompanied by the comment: “Dr. Jihad, you do not want this blood on your hands.”  Makdissi’s answer is to ask if they “think that I am blind to the heroic actions of the Syrian people?” While Makdissi’s conversation with Jarrah is not a clear indication of defection, it shows concerns about the opposition’s allegations. The effects of Makdissi’s conversation with Rami Jarrah are expressed in the statement Makdissi makes during a press conference about chemical weapons the day after: Syria’s chemical weapons will ‘never’ be used against Syrians.

The conversation with @Edwardedark comes in the aftermath of the statement. It takes on another tone when @Edwardedark lectures Makdissi about the fears that his admission about Syria’s chemical weapons – viewed as a threat - awakened regional and international governments. @Edwardedark does not discuss the internal aspect of the statement or the assurances given to the Syrian people, while Makdissi insist on this aspect by affirming that his “statement is fine but it depends from which angle u look at it”. 

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The rest of the conversation revolves around dialogue. To @Edwardedark, who tells him that the absence of dialogue is fueled by the violence of “your” troops prompting violent actions from opposition, Makdissi answered that “the absence of talking to each others makes both sides fight.” Makdissi challenges every explanation given by @edwardedark on the absence of dialogue.

It is unclear whether Makdissi reached out as a private person or as Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, since it was from his “only Twitter personal account.” These conversations have been considered by the mainstream press as mainly hostile to the current Syrian government and sympathetic to the opposition, as a willingness to defect, when their contents were heavily focused on the unity of the Syrian people and dialogue.  Whatever Makdissi’s fate is today - the likely reason for the activists to publish their private conversations with him - these conversations remain unique in the sense that they represent an attempt at dialogue between Syrians at a time when dialogue is being “forbidden,” denied, curtailed and manipulated by outside actors.

In every conflict a time comes when warring parties feel the need for dialogue. When the cost of war becomes high and/or victory uncertain, and when both parties have common stakes and interests as well as concerns about the hardships endured by the people and the destruction of the country. Makdissi was genuinely appealing to these concerns.

The absence of dialogue in the Syrian crisis has been the most difficult issue for Syrians to bear. The reasons for this are the opposition’s compliance with the approach, which the West has been systematically applying to justify interventions in conflicts, namely the refusal of genuine dialogue as an alternative to war. Western military interventions since the Iraq war are mostly based on the principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P), but they are always preceded by a regime of sanctions with increasing severity, which amount to subjecting the country in question and its people to submission, humiliation, and/or war. 

This polarizing approach excludes genuine dialogue because any compromise from the sanctioned party becomes an admission of weakness and bears with it the consequent humiliation. In fact, any compromise outside dialogue is always an admission of weakness and submission. Dialogue takes place only when both sides accept and respect each other and are ready to move from their original positions. Excluding dialogue alienates the parties from each other and pushes them to violence, which brings with it a moral justification for war.

Indeed, applying the R2P principle after multiple rounds of sanctions, reaching each time different levels of government and society, and alienating the whole country, is what contemporary western ‘diplomacy’ is all about. It is a diplomacy of humiliation and submission, an imperialist diplomacy. And, as the violence increases wars of intervention become easier to justify on moral grounds despite their horrendous human cost.

This is known in ethics as the double effect doctrine. The principle states that, as long as the intended effect of an action is good, in this case saving lives and preventing atrocities, then its unintended ones are justified (e.g. the death of hundred of thousands or millions from sanctions and war). This kind of moral justification takes into account the intention behind the action and considers the action as a means toward a goal.

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However, there is more than one interpretation of the double effect doctrine. Philosopher, and anti-war activist, G.E.M. Anscombe is concerned by the ‘abuse’ of the doctrine to justify war. She sees some actions as absolutely forbidden and the justification of the doctrine valid only if the bad effects are “not used as a means to achieving one’s goals.” Without hinging on anti-war absolutism, the latter interpretation gives us an ethical framework about dialogue, and the role its absence plays in the Syrian crisis.

The denial of dialogue provokes a de facto increase in violence, bringing closer either a military solution or a long, protracted, war so that bad effects can be used as means to achieve other goals, the most recurrent one, as stated by the opposition, is Assad’s departure. According to Anscombe’s interpretation, whenever an effect is used as a means, it becomes intended, not only foreseen.

When alternative courses of action, like dialogue, are neither taken into consideration nor exhausted, we may fairly assume that current actions to bring about the fall of the regime and their effects are intended.  Thus, whomever is denying, or ‘forbidding’, dialogue in Syria, is using the current war and any war of intervention that may result from it, and their terrible toll on the country and its people, as means to a goal, whose effects are intended, not merely foreseen so much so that the moral responsibility for the current war in Syria and its continuation falls also on those who are forbidding dialogue between the parties and those who are being compliant with the absence of dialogue.

Syria is in a situation where dialogue is being denied to the Syrian people by outside actors. Makdissi’s use of the term “forbidden” is accurate since it indicates an externally-enforced absence of dialogue. And while many argue that the Syrian government does not want dialogue, they are confusing dialogue between the Syrian people with the one between Syria and outside actors, including state actors.

Interestingly, in a recent interview with Syrian TV channel al-Ikhbariya in which he criticises the opposition’s statements about dialogue, Assad makes a distinction between hiwar (dialogue) and mufawada (negotiation). Hiwar, Assad says, takes place between the Syrian people and their government as one family, while mufawada takes place between state actors. With this semantic distinction, Assad was, once again, inviting the opposition to join dialogue in the spirit of one family that is Syria without taking its diktats from outside state actors.

Before this, and on many occasions, President Assad has called for dialogue devoid of the influence of external state actors. Assad’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, spelled out even more clearly what Assad meant: that everybody is invited to the conversation table, to participate in a unity government, except those who cling to outside intervention, and that any discussion of Assad’s future is deemed ‘unacceptable’ because it is seen as a demand coming from external state actors. In a March 2013 interview for the Sunday Times, and in his latest interview with Syrian TV Al-Ikhbariya, Assad renewed his call for dialogue with all Syrians, even armed Syrians, but made clear that dialogue must take place between Syrians, any external force will have no say in Syria’s future.  

There is currently a will for dialogue and reconciliation among Syrians but this is obscured by many things, most notably the hesitation from those in the opposition who already called for dialogue but expect the government to fall anytime soon as each time the government makes military breakthroughs, the opposition backers step up military aid.

On the other hand, the dismissal by external actors of Assad’s call for dialogue as disingenuous - because he did not offer to go - is contrary to the logic of dialogue. If Assad leaves, between which parties is the dialogue going to take place and what kind of transition can be imagined when the elements of a transition are gone?

By asking Assad to leave before any conversation takes place, external actors are seeking subjugation, not dialogue. In the same vein, asking for a political solution, absent dialogue, as prominent opposition leader Haytham el-Manna advocates while doubting the regime’s willingness to enter dialogue is incoherent and ambiguous. In the current circumstances, political pressure without dialogue goes hand in hand with a military solution. Clearly, external state actors are preventing dialogue in Syria by stating their own conditions in what should be a hiwar between the members of one family, or by making the opposition believe in a positive military outcome.

Now that the possibility of intervention has come and gone, as well as the possibility of a quick demise of the Assad government as in Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak, continuing to refuse dialogue means that the war that is tearing Syria apart is no longer only a means to achieve the goal of removing Assad, but that it has become the goal.

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