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.

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