Syria: truth, lies and realpolitik

A mass grave is formed in Houla. EPA

After a longish lull, the ghastly images emanating from Houla have re-focused world attention on Syria and its rapidly deteriorating internal condition, as Mat Hardy pointed out on The Conversation yesterday.

Seared by images of dead children and butchered adults, the globe has been swept by renewed calls for “action” and the Western callers for armed intervention are back in vogue.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague raised superficial hopes with a tough message to Russia to fall in line with world thinking, but after a visit to Moscow he predictably backed into the corner of “urging” restraint on the Syrian regime.

Bob Carr, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, provided a convenient pointer to the essential problem at the global diplomatic level during his hand-wringing display on Lateline.

There was talk of the general context and the widespread desire to act under the rubric of R2P (Right to Protect). Asked, however, why armed intervention in Libya was possible but not in Syria, he was immediately clear: Russia and China had no specific position on the Libyan affair, but they certainly do on Syria.

Because the two countries have veto power in the Security Council, the United Nations can do little more than condemn events in Syria and try to persuade the outliers to come round to a majority view. As Hague found out, again, and Carr indicated, that is a tough task at best and an impossible one at worst.

Complicating this, as Nasya Bahfen suggests obliquely, the rise of the social media has both accelerated and aggravated coverage as well as interpretation of these undeniably complex issues.

Libyan rebel fighters in 2011. The Syrian conflict is very different to the Libyan situation. EPA/Manu Brabo

This is well illustrated by a Syrian episode a week earlier that got far less coverage. It was reported that a pro-revolution chef had poisoned the food of Bashar al-Assad’s “crisis committee” members, including Bashar’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat.

For several hours there were swirling reports, rumours really, that the leaders had all died, Bashar had left the country, there was a military coup. A few hours later it had all passed, though elements of the story remain unresolved: some alleged victims have subsequently appeared on television but others, conspicuously have not.

The mainstream media and its feeders like AP and Reuters stayed resolutely away, or at least distant, from the story, clearly suspicious about what was really happening. There has been a profound difference with the Houla story however, as there was much earlier when the first bombardments of Homs began. The immediate sighting of bodies on social media has made the story somehow more reliable than one where they were not on show. That might seem a crass point, but it is an important issue that leads directly to the matter of interpretation.

As Charles Glass, an experienced Middle East observer and one with a specific interest in Syria points out in the latest New York Review of Books, the complexities of Syria make it a particularly difficult issue.

Yes, Russia does have a Syrian naval base in Tartous at the edge of the Mediterranean, and has done so since 1971. (Coincidentally, Tartous is also on the edge of the Alawite heartland that provides Bashar al-Assad’s core support). That was definitely not the case with Libya.

But as Glass points out, there is much more to it than that, and a constant problem throughout this whole awful upheaval in Syria has been the abiding disregard for the on-the -ground social realities that make resolution so difficult. From the beginning, the complexities have been ironed out to make the “regime change” call fit the contours that appeared elsewhere in the “Arab Awakening”.

For a start, there is the coalition of minorities that have supported Bashar, and his father earlier, in basically providing a buffer zone against the majority Sunni community. Unlike Jordan, that has given Syria a secular rather than Islamic state constitution. While figures vary, the Sunni community is generally put at around 74% with “other Muslim” (mostly Alawite but including Shia) around 16% with Christians around 10%.

President Assad visits Homs on 27 March of this year after state forces defeated Free Syrian Army rebels. Assad retains much support among the Syrian populace. EPA/SANA

Within that, though, are important distinctions. Kurds in the north are around 9% and an immediate concern to Turkey which, partly as a result, has shown keen interest in leading pressure on Syria. Then, given the Shia minority and the backdrop of the massive reversal in Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq as a result of the war, Iran has a profound interest in Syria, as does Saudi for very different reasons. The Iran-Syria connection, then, has been well commented upon at the popular and general level, but not necessarily well understood.

It is because of this immense complexity that the easy interpretations placed on Syrian events have not always been satisfying or sound. Even in his report to the UN, immediately prior to Houla, on the observer mission activities, Ban Ki-Moon indicated that sometimes things were not always what they seemed: he accepts that there are what he called “established terrorist groups” at work, and that the so-called “Syrian opposition” was not at all united.

Much earlier and consistently, International Crisis Group reports have made the same comments but not received wide coverage, perhaps because that muddies the “easy” story. At least some lessons seem now to have been learned from Iraq, Tunisia and Libya, however, and from the on-going revelations emerging from the Egyptian presidential elections.

None of this is to vouchsafe for the Syrian regime, far from it, but it is to say that resolution is far more difficult than having William Hague or Bob Carr exert additional pressure seeking some sort of “change” (the questions there being to whom and in what form?). Yes, there are victims in Houla, sadly so.

Charles Glass, though, is only the most recent observer to suggest that change will produce other victims: one Christian contact said that while he favoured the revolution, outside manoeuvring was pushing him into the arms of the regime.

He did not want to be there, but local conditions deemed it so. The social media sphere may demand immediate and any action, then, but rational thought is now in even greater demand.