Syrian Ceasefire Faces Many Obstacles

By Bill Rhatican

Just over two weeks ago the town of Houla was the scene of a horrible massacre claiming more than 100 innocent lives, many of them women and children.  The violence is yet another tragic event in an increasingly violent conflict driven by the Assad government, its supporters and a wide array of opposition groups.  Anti-Assad groups are comprised of Syrian nationals and a dizzying array of foreign fighters with proxy influences.  While all would like to see the removal of the Assad regime, their ideas of post-Assad Syria look very different.

Situation on the Ground

The situation in Syria becomes much more complex as external influence and resources enter the conflict.  With opposing organizations harboring shared hostilities toward the Assad regime finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict will be very difficult.  The Houla massacre is a macabre reminder that despite significant obstacles on the path to peace, many more lives will be lost if a sustained effort toward reconciliation does not gain international momentum.

The Shia dominated Assad regime has traditionally received local support from Shia Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, while close ties abroad with Russia and China offer political support, international trade, and – in some cases – military advisors.  Familiar stances are taken, as they are throughout the Middle East, with military and political-economic lines drawn between spheres of Western and Eastern influences.  For this reason it is paramount that any peace process includes the UN Security Council moving forward in harmony with Russia and China.  In addition, the regional Shia and Sunni nations will have to limit their involvement in Syrian affairs.  While the all-too-familiar temptation to use internal conflict between Sunni and Shia as a stage to wage proxy wars is present, it will ultimately have to be the voices of Syrian nationals that determine their own agenda.

International Participation Needed

Three powerful international organizations have condemned the violence.  The European Union, United Nations, and the Arab League have all taken steps to quell the violence with limited success.  Without Russian and – to a lesser extent – Chinese approval, the peace process will probably yield few results and in the interim lives will be lost on both sides of the conflict.  In a recent speech to his newly-elected parliament, Assad denied responsibility for the Houla massacre and dismissed the violence against his regime as foreign plots carried out by terrorist organizations looking to topple the Shia-led Ba’ath party.  While it is not clear who ultimately carried out the killings, it is evident that innocent lives are threatened by both pro-government factions and the ambiguous nature of a patchwork opposition.  It is clear that the international community will have to intercede.

To that end Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria and monitors placed by the Arab League have attempted to both observe and offer a voice for the people of Syria, the government, and its neighbors.  While neither has proved successful, the events in Houla remind us that the conflict may be beyond the control of all parties within Syrian borders.

Without a political solution or framework to end the violence, military intervention would complicate the situation both within Syria and the geo-political forces acting from abroad.  It is essential that the Western nations work with Russia China, the Arab League and top Syrian political defectors to create a platform for grievances to be heard after a cease-fire is agreed upon.

The forces working within Syria will have to trust the international community to keep their interests at the forefront while at the same time discrediting foreign opportunistic groups.  Though this task is formidable, the potential for another massacre should be sufficient to mobilize enough international pressure to bring about a political pathway for a cease-fire and ultimately a lasting peace.  Φ

Bill Rhatican is a pre-law student at Portland State University who supports nonviolent conflict resolution through the engagement of international agencies.

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