Saturday,25 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Saturday,25 May, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Civil war?

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s description of events in Syria as being a “civil war” have triggered suspicions among the country’s opposition

Al-Ahram Weekly

More than six weeks after his mission began and after the failure of a ceasefire proposal during the Eid last week, UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has surprised observers by describing events in Syria as being part of a “civil war”, reports Bassel Oudat from Damascus.
Brahimi did not mention that there was a revolution of a political nature taking place in Syria, with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and its military and security forces fighting Syrians of all sects and denominations across the country. As a result, his words triggered a variety of reactions on the domestic, Arab and international fronts.
During a news conference held in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the end of October, Brahimi spoke with passion about a Syrian mother whose two sons were fighting on different sides of the conflict. “If this isn’t a civil war, then I don’t know what is,” he said.
For the Syrian opposition, this superficial portrayal of the situation in the country equates the victims with the executioners, the security forces employed by the Al-Assad regime, and some in the opposition have even accused Brahimi of trying to support the regime by using this description as a way of changing the position of the international community on the Syrian crisis.
Opposition figures say that Brahimi’s description is not in line with what is occurring on the ground in the country.
Brahimi did not specify the reasons he had used to come to his conclusion, but the opposition reminded observers that the regime was still using cluster bombs against civilians and committing massacres throughout the country.
According to a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights one month ago, what is happening in Syria is the “genocide of civilians” by the regime.
“Brahimi based his view of what is happening in Syria on the views of various Syrian political and civilian forces,” Loay Hussein, leader of the opposition Building the State group, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“These indicated to him that the battles and political conflict that are taking place in Syria are part of a civil war going on on multiple levels. This means that the civil war in Syria is not only taking the shape of a sectarian war, but that it has also become a civil war on the political, religious and nationalist levels.”
“I believe Brahimi arrived on the scene too late and did not have a chance to see the popular revolution against the despotic and murderous regime. During his visits to Syria, he saw regime warplanes and armed revolutionary brigades shooting them down, but he did not see the protest movements.”
There have been no official comments on Brahimi’s description of the state of affairs in the country by the Syrian regime, though ordinarily it would respond that such language is “not consistent with reality” because the government is fighting “terrorism”.
Brahimi’s version of what is happening in Syria is not binding, since he is an international envoy who does not take decisions himself, but only offers his opinions.
Nevertheless, the opposition claims that a more accurate description of what is occurring in Syria would stress the crimes against humanity and war crimes it says have been committed by the regime, adding that these have been extensively documented.
It has warned against voiding the Syrian revolution of its content and seeking to transform it from a popular revolution against a regime that kills its own people into a civil war.
The opposition also says that the regime has been trying to characterise the crisis as a conflict between sects, and it has accused the Syrian state security and media of complicity in attempting to incite civil war.
It has urged all Syrians to exercise restraint and “not to be dragged into the sectarian fray that the regime has been trying to incite since the beginning, aiming to eliminate the aspirations of the Syrian people for a civil democratic state”.
All ethnic, denominational and sectarian groups in Syrian have participated in the protests, the opposition says, though it admits that their level of participation has varied. All Syrians, irrespective of sect, are victims of dictatorship, the opposition says, and all want a pluralist and democratic state where freedom, justice and dignity prevail.
Among the first countries to respond to Brahimi’s comments was Qatar, a key supporter of the opposition, whose prime minister declared that the events in Syria were not part of a civil war as Brahimi was claiming, but amounted to “genocide” carried out by the regime.
He called on the UN envoy to present a plan to the Security Council on how to resolve the Syrian crisis and launch an interim phase, instead of describing the situation in inaccurate terms.
The peaceful uprising began in Syria some 19 months ago against a regime that refused to make the transition to democracy or grant freedoms to its people. This uprising then developed into an armed revolutionary movement as a result of the regime’s use of military force against civilians and war by the state against its own people.
Despite these tragic developments, no Syrian will describe what is happening in the country as a civil or sectarian war, and no one will accuse the armed opposition of launching attacks of a sectarian or regional nature.
For his part, Hervé Ladsous, commander of the UN peacekeeping forces, repeated Lavrov’s remarks that events in Syria were “similar” to a “civil war”.
Later, the ministers of foreign affairs of France and Britain warned that Syria was on the “precipice” of civil war, although NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen hesitated to characterise it in these terms, as did the International Committee of the Red Cross.
International observers in the main agree that the events in Syria do not constitute a civil war, since the fighting is limited to an armed and unarmed popular opposition movement facing a dictatorial regime.
However, some have indicated that Syria may indeed have transitioned to civil war, since in a civil war “the assumption is that there are two warring parties, one of them not being the government, and that the fighting has resulted in the deaths of a significant number of people.”
Syrian activist Haitham Manaa, chair of the opposition National Coordination Committee overseas, told the Weekly that “any multi-party armed confrontation within the borders of a state is a form of civil war, even if the regime is party to it.”
 Responding to the fact that no one in Syria admits this characterisation of the crisis, Manaa said that “warring parties in a civil war usually refuse to utter its name.”
“There is a fear that the Syrian people’s revolution on the ground will break down into destructive armed confrontations,” Manaa said. “The armed parties today are not the vanguards of Syrian democrats. The military crackdown is tearing the country apart, and ending the fighting is the best way to return to the values of the civilian democratic revolution.”
According to Syrian human rights monitors, the fighting in Syria has led to the deaths of some 40,000 people and the injury of more than 200,000. An estimated 30,000 people are missing. Thirty per cent of the country’s healthcare infrastructure has collapsed, 85 villages have been wiped out, two million Syrians have been displaced, and more than 380,000 have been forced to seek refuge abroad.
The estimated economic toll of the conflict amounts to more than $150 billion.
Some observers believe that Brahimi has failed to make progress in his mission in Syria because the regime has refused to stop its military operations or negotiate a transitional phase.
There is also a disunited opposition to contend with and continuing divisions among the international community on the Syrian crisis.
Brahimi may be trying to promote a multi-layered assessment of the conflict, or seeking to create an international axis as the political foundation for a Security Council session that could end in the permanent members agreeing to deploy peace-keeping forces in Syria.
In the meantime, debates remain heated about what is happening on the ground in Syria itself. Is it a civil war between two parties, or is it genocide by the regime?
The debate is not only rhetorical, since it will have repercussions on how to exit the crisis in the country.

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