Sunday, 26 May 2013

Arming the armed opposition in Syria – 10 questions

This was a tweet from the UK Government  a couple of days ago.  I've posted previously on the “arming the opposition” issue and discussed the matter with UK Government officials however many questions remain.

Here are 10 questions for the UK government (and other governments) to consider ahead of any possible decisions to relax the EU arms embargo on Syria. They essentially ask what adequate safeguards would the UK Government put in place to ensure any arms transferred would not be used to commit human rights abuses. 

1.        How would the UK Government assess a potential arms transfer to Syria against 1) its own criteria and 2) the EU code of conduct?

2.        How would the UK Government assess and determine which armed opposition groups would receive any transfer of conventional arms and can they name these armed groups?

3.        How would the UK Government assess the knowledge it has at the time of any possible authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of international crimes including war crimes, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances or torture?

4.        How would the UK Government monitor and verify the use of the conventional arms transferred?

5.        What measures would be put in place to prevent the theft, diversion or movement of an arms transfer from the designated end-user to an unauthorised end-user (such as a different armed opposition group)?

6.        What type of undertaking would the UK Government stipulate of the designated end-user that the conventional arms will not be subsequently re-transferred to another user (for example a different armed group in another part of the country)?

7.        What measures would the UK Government put in place to ensure a strict system of registration, storage and accountability for the use of the arms transferred?

8.        What post-shipment verification mechanism(s) would the UK Government put in place and exactly how would the UK Government envisage these working?

9.        How would the UK Government ensure adequate training is provided to the designated end-users to ensure the conventional arms are used in accordance with international law?

10. What is the likelihood of an arms race occurring from increased arms supplies to the armed opposition?

I'm sure there are many more questions including ones relating to future stabilisation plans, DDR for instance. There will also be many rebuttal questions such as "how are people meant to defend themselves against a regime that is being armed anyway?" For now I've tried to keep these questions focused in relation to current UK government media and political messaging on the issue.


Here I am on BBC making several of these points:

Amnesty International Statement: EU Declaration on Arms Transfers to Syria 31 May 2013 (PDF) 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Opposition should speak up for UN organised elections in Syria

In Brief: Those that think they could secure the votes of the Syrian people should be calling for UN organised elections.

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures. Article 21 (3) Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

You would have to be living in some kind of bubble with your emotions turned off to totally dismiss the plea for international armed intervention in Syria.

The horrendous misery and suffering the Assad regime has coldly and systematically inflicted on men, women and children is sickening. That the regime does this with total impunity so it can maintain its corrupt and lavish lifestyle only adds to those screaming for such intervention.

I’m however not going to make the case for such military action here; many have already lobbied for different forms of armed intervention, often in a very short sighted, ill thought through and hawkish manner which would likely do more harm than good to civilians and the stability of Syria and the region. The fact that the risks and costs of armed intervention are supremely high really does need to be more widely understood and acknowledged.

Instead, I want to take a longer and more ambitious view in light of renewed talk of a political process initiated by the US and Russia.

Political solutions

The Geneva communique or maybe a soon to be updated version of it still remains the preferred option by many countries in the international community to resolve the crisis in Syria. There are many problems with this initiative too numerous to detail here. This is true of many such proposals though depending on how hard and uncompromising your position is.

A key problem for those pressing for a genuine political solution and against a military solution (outside the UN system) is that the senior leadership of the Syrian government (the regime) do not appear to want a ceasefire to enable a credible and inclusive dialogue. They also don’t appear to want credible elections which would be one of the desired outcomes of an inclusive dialogue. And Assad himself has rejected immunity deals in the past.

However have all attempts to find innovative solutions to address these points and to resolve the conflict been explored yet? Have all attempts to reach out to Syrian people who support the government or the Ba’ath party or are neither with the government or the mainstream opposition been attempted yet? Not by a long way. Risk analysis paralysis, budget constraints, lack of imagination, hardening positions and fatigue are major factors in this lack of effective and innovative action.

However if not now, maybe in ten years when tens of thousands of lives have been lost, a political resolution will still be needed which includes a milestone of credible elections inside Syria. I don’t believe Assad or any of his backers think he himself could take a party to victory in a UN organised election – however ceasefires, a credible election and a long term and well resourced UN stabilisation mission seems to be one of the smarter proposals to turn Syria away from the abyss of a failed state with increasingly bloody sectarian killings and provocations and towards a process leading to a cycle of elections which sees the country develop into a parliamentary democracy.

I should also say I don’t believe any one political group within the opposition could win an election outright so some level of coalition government would seem inevitable.

How do we get there when so many are dead against even having a process of negotiation though? I suggest we start with firstly getting a commitment from all parties that they do actually support UN organised elections as opposed to firstly seeking their commitment to dialogue or a ceasefire. These latter two factors, dialogue and ceasefire, have been stumbling blocks and the crucial point, that of a Syria where attaining power peacefully through credible elections is the new norm, has been lost from the mainstream political and media narrative which is locked into a downward spiral of war, brutality and helplessness.

Credible Elections

The often repeated mantra of “let the Syrian people decide” in my mind means credible elections not the imposition of a new, unelected “government”. It is quite clear that elections organised by the Syrian state alone would not be seen as credible. Instead it seems Syrian elections for a new parliamentary system should be planned, organised, administered and monitored by the UN’s Electoral Assistance Division (EAD) at the UNs Department of Political Affairs.

I’m not hugely convinced a transitional government with elements of the current government and elements of various opposition groups is a realistic proposition given the level of distrust between the “sides”. It seems to be yet another formulation, like “the opposition should unite” which seems destined to fail. Why can’t the competing parties agree to differ and instead go about organising their party machinery and get ready for campaigning? Let the people decide.

Anyway, as for UN organised elections there are also some technicalities here. Syria as a member state of the UN would need to request the UNs EAD.  The UN itself says “Requests from political parties, civil society or other entities are not considered.”  That of course does not mean civil society, “other entities” and Syrian opposition groups can not be making a loud noise about the need for elections. If they are confident they can secure a large proportion of the vote what is stopping them? Likewise, the Ba’ath party, if confident of its support should not be shy of such elections. Russia and Iran should also be making these calls making it clear to the regime that a large proportion of the Syrian people do not trust the government to organise and administer national elections in Syria.

I would also suggest it should not be beyond the UNs Department of Political Affairs to draft a request for electoral assistance for the Syrian authorities. In fact I think this would be a sensible course of action to speed up this process.

UN electoral assistance could also happen at the request of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly but this would still need the Syrian authority’s agreement. I’ve spoken to Syrian supporters of the Ba’ath party who all claim their party has the support to win an election in surely they should also be speaking loudly in favour of such a process.

Local Ceasefires

Obviously conducting a national election during an armed conflict would not be viable. I’d also suggest a nation wide ceasefire across Syria at the beginning of a political process is also not viable. Better that ceasefires are approached at a local level where the cessation of armed conflict is coupled with an injection of humanitarian assistance but also political assistance via a UN peacekeeping and stabilization mission. This would help with local government and the provision of services, rule of law, disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating armed group members and also reforming the security sector. This means a national stability plan implemented locally and gradually. The incentive for the local population to engage such an initiative would be the return of stability, safety and a functioning local government. That this could happen while there is still brutal armed conflict in other parts of the country doesn't mean it should not be attempted and incentives offered by the international community.

UN Forces

Now certainly a UN presence would be needed on the ground beyond political, humanitarian and technical assistance. Peacekeepers would surely be needed to ensure local and more than likely fragile ceasefires held. Their mandate should probably be under review every month to ensure it is fit for purpose. Again this would be part of a national stability plan but implemented locally and gradually.

All these stages would require a UN Security Council resolution.

What next?

Let’s say elections get planned for the second quarter of 2014 – this gives Syrians and the international community a year to replicate the local ceasefire model across the country in time for national parliamentary elections. During that time the architecture for such a process would be being funded and built.

I’ll not get into which parties would be running in an election and what could be in their manifestos but it would seem wrong to exclude any current parties (the Ba’ath party for instance). I also suspect many new parties would form out of the various Syrian opposition groupings given the huge ideological differences.

The UN presence would certainly still be needed in the country long after the first election through to the next set of elections until the architecture of a new system of government, financial sector and civil society was self sufficient. Gradually the stabilisation presence could be withdrawn in the same way it was implemented – locally and gradually based on clear assessments and criteria. We could be talking a 20 year process here taking in 4 or 5 election cycles all organised by the UN with gradually increasing input from new Syrian governance structures.


Syria is blighted by spoilers – there are too many to mention whether pro or anti regime, whether in the international community, in think tanks, in the media, in neighbouring countries. There are also multiple questions remaining regarding what happens to those who have committed or commissioned grave violations of international law. It seems inconceivable that Assad and senior “security” officials and ministers could be involved in such a political process – who other than Russia, Iran and other senior figures in the Syrian government could safely propose this to Assad et al though? I can’t answer this here but I do believe Iran should be involved (maybe indirectly) in the dialogue in order to bring about a road map towards elections in Syria.

Problems with this

A lot of the initiatives I have mentioned above may not happen. This is a galactic understatement given the inter-dependencies of each point in the process, not to mention the spoilers and cynics seeking to spread the conflict or at the very least, not do anything to resolve it. I've also not even touched on some of the jihadi armed groups who could be supreme spoilers and whether their representatives should be involved in talks. I think maybe they could be in an indirect way similar to Iran. Maybe it is better to try and engage these groups now before it is too late? However, they and others using force now may not wish to be engaged and may not be open to reasonable and rational dialogue, local ceasefires or elections – I’m very aware of this problem.

An alternative

Given all the pitfalls and spoilers in the way of getting to credible elections, a UN peace enforcement mission may be needed. This would also need the authorization of the UN Security Council. I mention this largely because the spoilers are sadly, so influential in the Syrian context. But with the increasing threat of significant regional spill over member states and the UN SC may feel stability needs to be imposed and enforced by a UN force on areas where local ceasefires were not being agreed to by a set time or have been broken. Again, this would be part of a national plan activated if necessary at a local level. The mid term milestone would still be UN organised elections. That is the prize.


All of these suggestions are ambitious but that is exactly what we should be demanding from Syrians and the International community - a level of ambition which meets the highest ideals we as humans set out for ourselves in the UN Declaration of Human  “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

Giving too much respect or airtime to sectarian, geopolitical and religious narratives is destroying Syria and contributing to the deaths of Syrian civilians. A wider, more inclusive view of what it means to be “Syrian” is truly needed. Those groups that think they can lead the country out of this madness should be seeking to make their case at the ballot box. They will not please everybody including within their own constituencies but name me a political party that can do that.

Ultimately, if we do not have an ambitious vision for getting out of this hell then Syria and large parts of the region will burn to ashes because that is the logical conclusion of the current state of affairs. We must not let that happen.

Friday, 22 March 2013

On the occupied Syrian Golan - a suggestion for Syria's opposition

In Brief: the opposition should refine their foreign policy positions away from counter productive populism and towards a constructive, principled, effective and human rights based approach.

Over recent weeks, some Syrian opposition activists, fighters and politicians have suggested the reason arms are not flowing from the UK and the US to the “Free Syrian Army” is because the "West wants to protect Israel".

That a possible "threat" to Israelis enters into the strategic calculations of the US, UK and others shouldn't come as a surprise and is not unreasonable. It is of course easy to understand why some anti regime Syrians  get annoyed with the invocation of a hypothetical threat when crimes against humanity are happening right now to the Syrian people (and the US is still  not calling for an International Criminal Court referral, to name just one practical measure it could take). But instead of reacting with anger, maybe there are smarter responses, especially regarding positions relating to Israel and in particular the occupied Syrian Golan.

Now I say this with an understanding that there are far more important and immediate issues the opposition are currently dealing with than what their future foreign policy will be. However, perceptions and misconceptions about how different elements of the opposition view the Israel issue should not be underestimated and are likely to be a matter of increased debate and scrutiny in the near future.

The assertion that none too enthusiastic material support for the opposition is about “protecting Israel” is not the whole story of course. There are several other genuine reasons the "FSA" have not been directly armed by the US and UK and it is also absolutely right that governments fully consider all the associated risks of arming. I said as much back in June 2012 and those risks are still there.

So yes a responsible arms exporter (an oxymoron maybe?) would not want to see any weapons it supplied to armed opposition groups being used to commit human rights abuses or transferred to or taken by undesirable groups. Yes it is abundantly clear that Assad’s forces have carried out the vast majority of the unlawful killings and other human rights violations, but it's a bit much to expect governments to turn a blind eye to the numerous credible reports and footage of some armed opposition groups torturing and executing captives.

All these concerns and risks create an uneasy background mood in the minds of many people including government officials. It is within the power of the mainstream opposition to develop foreign policy positions, which will help create some reassurances. 

Regarding Israel, in particular the occupied Syrian Golan, how could this be done in a principled way which didn't devalue the credibility of the opposition? Well let's look at text in previous transition plan proposals and statements from opposition conferences such as this one from the Cairo conference on July 2-3 2012:

Syrian people are free and sovereign in their country and land, which are two inseparable political units and it is not allowed to give up any inch of it, including the occupied Golan. The Syrian people have the right to struggle for the restoration of their occupied territories by all possible means.

Such ambiguous wording is hardly going to endear you to those you want material support from in the US and UK. Popular sloganeering such as "After Assad we march on Jerusalem" even less so. I do understand how credibility with "the street" is a driving concern for many opposition politicians but resorting to blunt populism is the worst form of short termism.

A humble suggestion would be to frame a position consistent with the human rights demands and conditions the UK and US rightly set, in some cases, for the opposition. This will be interesting in itself given the near non existent human rights approach the US takes to the wider Israel / Palestine issue. But if the US, UK et al are rightly demanding human rights respect of Syrian opposition groups how will they then react when those groups adapt their positions towards the Golan Heights and Israel firmly and clearly within the framework of international human rights and humanitarian law?

So what could that look like? Here is a very top line suggestion minus all the associated legalese:

The Golan Heights were occupied by Israel in 1967 though it is internationally recognized as Syrian territory. The establishment and retention of civilian settlements in occupied territory violates international law. 
Our intention following transition is to make an unambiguous call on Israel to initiate a programme of withdrawal from the occupied Syrian Golan. We call on all those countries, institutions and individuals advocating a new Syria based on respect for human rights and international law to act in a consistent way with all Syria’s neighbours and support this initiative. The issue of the Golan should be addressed and resolved in accordance with international law and respect for the individual rights of all affected.

How the US, UK and others deal with the opposition invoking such a foreign policy position with regards Israel remains to be seen. Right now, the UK and the US are imposing certain human rights standards on their conditional assistance with the opposition, the opposition should also be insisting on consistency from them. There is actually a very good opportunity to bring the matter of long standing Israeli government impunity and western (and wider) complicity into the mix. It is better the opposition seize the initiative.  Demands for human rights respect should not be one way and the opposition need to be careful not to be on the back foot, seemingly responding to demands as opposed to setting the agenda.

As already stated, this is not the primary issue right now but that does not mean the opposition should not, I humbly suggest, be refining their foreign policy positions away from counter productive populism and towards a constructive, principled, effective and rights based approach.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

New Blog - Posting Soon

OK I figured it's about time I got my own personal blog. I'll mainly be posting on the situation in Syria.These posts will be my own reflections, testing ideas and seeking feedback. The views will sometimes cross over with the positions of the organization I work for but not always - hence the need to test ideas and seek feedback. See it as an exercise in "active participation".

That's all for now - I'll be posting soon.