In the second and last part of our interview with the Dutch diplomat and scholar Nikolaos Van Dam, the man who has experienced Syria closely and continues to speak openly and frankly on the most sensitive issues.
Van Dam criticizes the visit of US Ambassador Ford and his French colleague Chevallier to the demonstrators in Hama in July 2011, saying it was interpreted as a positive signal that US and French support was forthcoming. But in the end, it did not come as expected or imagined. He explains, the opposition groups and demonstrators should have known that, rationally speaking, but they were emotionally overwhelmed by the imaginary prospects of success.
Regarding the issue of accountability, Van Dam adds, the leaders of foreign countries who have been involved or implicated in the war-by-proxy in Syria share a heavy co-responsibility of their role, and the many victims, refugees and the huge amount of destruction caused.
Sawah: On 10 August 2011, you wrote an op-ed for The Independent describing the Syrian protesters as “asking for nothing more than peace, freedom and unity. It was only afterwards that they demanded the downfall of the regime.” Later in your book “Destroying a Nation”, you say that the Syrian conflict was very early on a proxy war. When did this happen? Was this avoidable?
Ambassador Van Dam: Since you quote my August 2011 op-ed for The Independent, I would also like to note that on 11 June 2011, three months after the start of the revolution, I already wrote in The Independent that, tragically, a bloodbath “may now be inevitable”. And that the Syrian government was trying to start a national dialogue but that there were not any visible signs to suggest that the opposition wanted to talk, unless certain preconditions were being met. In my book I wrote that the regime reported that between 4 and 6 June 2011 nearly 120 of its soldiers and security people were killed and their bodies mutilated and thrown in a river around the town of Jisr al-Shugur. Opposition activists claimed at the time that the dead soldiers were shot by their own superiors as they tried to defect. According to other sources, opposition fighters took responsibility for the murder of the soldiers. Whatever the truth, it is clear that by June 2011 violence and counterviolence had increased to such an extent that any return to peaceful discussions and dialogue between regime and opposition had become extremely difficult.
On 10 August 2011, I indeed wrote in The Independent that “first, they were asking for nothing more than peace, freedom and unity. It was only afterwards that they demanded the downfall of the regime.” By the end of March 2011, however, demonstrators had already started to use the slogan that the people wanted “the fall of the regime”, similar to the slogans that had earlier been used in other “Arab Spring countries” like Tunisia and Egypt, and that by the end of July 2011, they started to massively demand “the execution of the president”. They started asking “peacefully” for something very unpeaceful. I don’t think such demonstrations would have been allowed in any Western country. Nevertheless, I am not aware of any Western criticism of these slogans, probably because many Western governments in fact hoped that the al-Assad regime would fall, like the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. As could have been expected, however, it did not work. The demonstrators were apparently not aware yet of the predictable disaster-in-waiting.
As I predicted in the 1996 edition of my book The Struggle for Power in Syria, 15 years before the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, any effort to topple the Syrian regime was bound to be extremely bloody – and for anyone with some knowledge of the repressive character of the regime, it was not so difficult to make such a prediction.
Therefore, the bloody conflict was unavoidable, both by violent means, as well as through peaceful efforts that turned out to be not that peaceful after all, taking the professed aims into consideration: “toppling the regime” and “executing the president”.
Foreign interference through the shipment of billions of dollars of arms made the conflict much bloodier than it would otherwise have been.
In my article for Syria Comment, written in April 2011, within a month after the start of the Syrian Revolution, I noted that one should beware of “the dangerous trap of sectarianism”. Later on, I argued that it would be fully unrealistic to expect Bashar al-Assad to sign his own death warrant, and that one should not expect that the Syrian dictatorship could be peacefully transformed into a democracy and that deposing the al-Assad regime by military means would not at all imply that subsequently a democracy would be installed. But many people from the opposition, including many of their foreign supporters kept imagining (by way of wishful thinking), that all this would be possible. I thought throughout that my arguments were quite basic and self-evident, but in the minds of many people they were not.
One of the most elementary things, as I argued from the very beginning and onwards during all those years of bloody war, was the need for dialogue with the regime. After all, you can only politically solve a conflict when there is communication between the main parties involved (except if you militarily defeat the other party, but a “military solution” is not necessarily a political solution). But dialogue was strongly rejected by many of the opposition, and their foreign supporters as well, with the exception of contacts with the regime through the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria. And it would be an illusion to think that the UN Special Envoy can enforce things. He is obliged to cooperate with the main parties involved, in accordance with his mandate from the UN Security Council.
And when the opposition groups declared that they wanted a political solution along the lines of the Geneva Communiqué (2012) and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (which in itself was a just and realistic demand), they generally added that their aim was to topple the regime, and to have those with blood on their hands brought before justice. The latter demands constituted a guarantee for failure of any negotiations with the regime. Although it should be added that negotiating without these – in my opinion – abortive preconditions did not imply any guarantee for success. Had the regime, the other way around, demanded a guarantee that the opposition groups should have disappeared by the end of the negotiations and their leaders brought before justice, no real negotiations would have taken place either. Neither party was prepared to negotiate with the other with the aim of real power sharing.
I prefer to leave it up to future historical researchers to determine more precisely when exactly the Syrian conflict turned into a war-by-proxy. The latter could have been prevented, of course, because the relevant countries did not have to interfere; and non-intervention would have saved a great number of lives, as it would have shortened the war.
Sawah: Many Syrian anti-Assad activists believe that militarizing the revolution was the biggest mistake. Do you believe militarization was the biggest opposition mistake?
Ambassador Van Dam: When taking the huge number of victims into account, it was a great mistake. It gave the (much stronger) regime an extra argument to suppress the revolution. One should add, however, that militarizing the revolution was not only an autonomous decision taken separately by various individual opposition groups, but was also a direct consequence of indirect (or direct) foreign military intervention, which was not even well coordinated. And foreign military interventions generally lead to disasters, as we have seen in the cases of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
But I am afraid that without arms, the opposition groups would not have had much of a chance either to substantially win. Perhaps something could have been achieved through dialogue. Rejecting dialogue, however, and making unrealistic claims was also a mistake.
In June 2011, for instance, some internal opposition meetings took place in Damascus with the aim of discussing how the crisis could be solved. They wanted a “peaceful transition to a democratic, civil and pluralistic state”, and called for an immediate end to the security crackdown and the withdrawal of the army to its bases. They stressed that there could be no national dialogue with a “security solution” taking place. Confidence-building measures were urgently needed. The opposition conference called for an independent committee to investigate the killings of Syrian citizens and soldiers, the release of all political prisoners, the right to peaceful protests without the government’s prior approval, and an end to the power monopoly of the Ba’th Party. I think all these demands were correct and “realistic” (even though I think that the Ba’th regime would not have been willing to give up its power monopoly), with the exception, however, of the demand of “the right of peaceful protests without the government’s prior approval”, which is something which would not even be allowed in most Western democracies.
Sawah: In an article you published in the Syria Comment, you mentioned that in the near future the regime will win, “because it is military the strongest. This does not mean, however, that the regime is bound to win the future of Syria in the longer term.” Still you ended your book “Destroying a Nation” with this phrase, “Miracles only happen when one keeps believing in them”, how would you marry the two?
Ambassador Van Dam: I did not write that I did believe in miracles myself, but that miracles could happen only if one kept believing in them. Actually, the longer the war lasted, the less I believed that a satisfactory political solution through negotiations was possible.
For positive results to be achieved in diplomacy, positive dynamics and a certain kind of optimism – call it professional optimism – are required. Starting with a pessimistic attitude during a political process clearly decreases the possibilities for success, because it psychologically undermines the positive dynamics needed for positive results. If you pessimistically express doubts about any possibilities of success beforehand, the chances of failure are bound to be bigger. But being unrealistically “up-beat” is not good either, because it would undermine credibility.
By the above quote from Syria Comment, I also meant that a military victory by the regime is not at all a guarantee that it can maintain its power in the longer term, let alone that a military victory means achieving lasting peace. Without a satisfactory “solution”, another revolution may be in the making, whether successful or not.
Sawah: While a political solution might be molded underway, some civil society and legal groups believe there cannot be a reconciliation without accountability. Is there any hope that the international forces find a way in the end to send the major perpetrators to court?
Ambassador Van Dam: First of all, one should answer the question between whom the reconciliation should take place. I suppose the civil society and legal groups you refer to, do not have the leadership of the Syrian regime in mind, and neither all those who have blood on their hands, and there are many thousands of them, when including the armed forces, pro-regime militias, the security services, and so on. Is reconciliation aimed at those who have supported the regime (whether or not they were forced to do so), but have no blood on their hands? The other way around, one should ask oneself whether or not the regime is prepared to reconcile with the opposition groups.
As far as the regime is concerned, real accountability, in my view, can only be realized when the regime would be toppled, and the main perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity would be caught and imprisoned. The same applies to those of the opposition who have committed war crimes. Under present circumstances, with the regime going in the direction of a military victory, chances for achieving justice and accountability are very slim. And I strongly doubt whether there are any international forces willing to catch those accused of war crimes inside Syria, because it would imply military intervention. In the past, countries like the United States and Great Britain (and others) already decided to not militarily intervene in Syria against the regime, and nothing has fundamentally changed in that respect (with some exceptions). Reluctance to do so now, would be even bigger than in the past. And international arrest warrants issued against persons who have reportedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, will remain rather symbolic as long as there is no possibility of catching them.
The grudges between the regime and the opposition are so immense that I hardly see any possibility for reconciliation, particularly under the present dictatorship. And who could lead the reconciliation? There is no Nelson Mandela in Syria. After all this death and destruction, it may take generations before you can talk about any kind of normalization. And one should also take into account that it takes at least two sides to reconcile; it is not only a one-sided affair.
The ideal hypothesis is that there cannot be real peace without full justice and accountability, but I am afraid this is very difficult to put into practice. Moreover, making the main perpetrators of this war, from whatever side, accountable, would in my opinion not in itself result in real peace and reconciliation. There has been too much bloodshed for that.
Calling for justice and accountability is good in itself, as is the documenting of all the war crimes that have been committed. This has to be done, of course, but not over and above efforts to proactively work towards finding a solution and preventing further bloodshed. The calls for justice and accountability need to be part of wider efforts to create peace, rather than only focusing on those who are guilty of the crimes committed against the Syrian people in the recent past. A political solution has to be found before justice can be done. It cannot be the other way around.
And last but not least: When speaking about accountability where Syria is concerned, one should not forget the role of leaders of foreign countries who have been involved or implicated in the war-by-proxy in Syria. After all, they share a heavy co-responsibility because of their role in the war, and therefore for its many victims, refugees and the huge destruction. This refers to their actions, or their lack of sufficient action, their creating false hopes (mainly among the Syrian opposition), or their inability to come to a common understanding to help ending the conflict, just to mention some highly relevant issues.
The United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, (to mention the most important states that have been heavily involved on the opposition side, among others) should be mentioned here, just as Russia and Iran (that have been heavily involved on the regime’s side).
The leaders concerned may argue that they sincerely did their best in helping solve the conflict in Syria (whether or not they did so mainly for strategic reasons), and that they supported the principle of accountability, at least where the opposing side was concerned.
But in the end, it is the results for which the leaders involved should be held accountable, not only for their declared intentions, whether good or wrong.
*Nikolaos van Dam is a former Dutch Ambassador (1988-2010) and Special Envoy for Syria (2015-16), and author of Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (2017), also in Arabic (2018): تدمير وطن: الحرب الاهلية في سوريا