Utter disbelief? Or was it outrage? That was the sentiment with which members of the UN greeted the news last Monday that Syria was becoming president of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva — just weeks after the Damascus regime’s reported chemical attack on the then rebel-held suburb of Douma, east of Damascus, in which dozens of civilians choked to death, many photographed sprawled on floors and stairwells in their homes, with white foam coming from their mouths and nostrils.
This was no less than a disastrous public relations boo-boo by the United Nations, though it appears to have been the result of benign intent: Syria took over the presidency from Switzerland seemingly because it follows Switzerland in the alphabetical order of member states. Still, the indignation was swift, given the fact that the CD, which in the past had carefully negotiated the international convention banning chemical weapons, will now have Syria sitting in the president’s chair.
Britain and the US, among other member states, were up front with their responses.
“The UN deplores the fact that Syria will resume the presidency on disarmament, considering the regime’s consistent and flagrant disregard of international non-proliferation and disarmament norms and agreements,” said a statement issued by British diplomats.
And Robert Wood, Washington’s ambassador in Geneva, tweeted: “Monday May 28 will be one of the darkest days in the history of the Conference on Disarmament, with Syria beginning its four-week presidency. The Damascus regime has neither the credibility nor the moral authority to preside over the CD. The international community must not be silent.”
Back to square one
The news may trouble the international community but it has hardly registered even as a blip on the radar of the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people, who currently are facing the stark reality that — with much of their country now under regime control, and with many of the hopes that had animated their rebellion for social justice, political freedom and economic equity seven years ago seemingly dashed — they are back to square one, the wind knocked out of their sails.
And the price these people have paid in order to achieve these hopes has indeed been steep: More than half of the 22 million souls who make up the population of the country were driven from their homes, with 6.2 million internally displaced and 5.6 million living abroad, along with an estimated 100,000 missing in government jails.
Yet, at a seminal level of relating to Syria’s tragedy, one has to admit that in his seven years of struggle to defeat the enemies of his police state, where lawlessness is the law and savagery is the norm, Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad has both failed and succeeded: He failed to understand why, in the first place, his people rose up against him, and succeeded in finally removing any threat to the continued existence of his regime.
In other words, in Al Assad’s eminent domain, a citizen proposes — and proposes with the humblest of rectitude, not in demonstrations, irrespective of how peaceful they may be — and he alone disposes.
This man is convinced that the rebellion is now over. He is again master of that domain. He may not be altogether wrong. The rebellion, not long ago proud and haughty in its bearing, is relegated to a remnant of armed opposition in Idlib province in the north, near the Turkish border, and another remnant in Dara’a in the south, near the Jordanian border. In short, the rebellion that once had its day is now having its eclipse. Sad fact, but it is a fact.
What next? The Syrian dictator wants you to know that he aims to rebuild the country. On April 14, he told a delegation of Russian lawmakers in Damascus that “Syria needs $400 billion [Dh1.47 trillion] for infrastructure recovery” that would take 10-15 years to complete. All well and good. But that would imply the repatriation of Syrian refugees in order to effect the “recovery”.
However, absent a political settlement, these folks are not likely to return home, and without them reconstruction will be impeded, if not wholly blocked.
Syria is a ravaged nation. War has destroyed its homes, public services, schools, state institutions and businesses. The absence of a political settlement, that guarantees citizens their right to live free of the threat of retribution by agents of the state, will deter refugees — especially those categories of refugees that include doctors, teachers, engineers, civil servants and the like, upon whom a properly functioning economy depends for its survival — from returning home.
It is unclear whether Bashar Al Assad remembers that the rebellion against his regime erupted back in 2011 because he had failed his people. He will not bend. This is a man who learns from his successes, not his failures. To paraphrase the American philosopher George Santayana, to build your future, you have to learn from the mistakes in your past. Otherwise, in this case, Syria remains doomed to repeat itself.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.