The Syrian Endgame, International Law and a French Comedy

When the light at the end of the dismal tunnel, through which the people of Syria have gone during the last seven years plus, has become visible, the voices of those who are unhappy that the war seems to become to an end not in their terms, are also becoming more and more vociferous. In their self-righteousness, they are ready to indefinitely prolong the suffering of the Syrian people, if the peace does not come in their terms.

Most people, who have followed the civil war in Syria, remember the slogan repeated ad nauseum by most Western leaders. Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Francois Holland and his Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius were tireless in their battle cry: “Assad has to go!” Although Holland’s successor, Emmanuel Macron, initially slowed down a bit in his enthusiasm to carry out a regime change also in Syria, he has not yet been fully cured from the burning desire of the betterment of the world by way of overthrowing governments (calling them “regimes”) that do not correspond to the Western criteria of legitimacy. So, no later than at the end of August he declared that keeping Bashar el-Assad in power in Syria would be a “fatal mistake” (ça serait une erreur funest). [1] Such a statement seems misplaced not only in view of the latest developments in this long-suffering country, but particularly in the light of what the French people think about the matter. Just a few days before Macron’s statement Le Figaro had polled its readers, asking them: “Would it be appropriate that Bashar el-Assad remains at the head of Syria?” The 68% of the respondents gave a positive answer while only 32% were against Assad remaining in power in his country.[2] When I mentioned this polling to a French professor with whom I happened to lecture in the summer school, he asked: did the respondents know who Assad was? My opinion of the readers of Le Figaro is somewhat higher. However, the matter is also that too often in many Western countries (and not only there, of course) “ordinary” people may indeed know less than “experts” or politicians, but they often understand better. Such is the result of every brainwashing; those who practice it have their brains even more skewed than those who are on the receiving end.

And the Libyan tragedy has taught these practitioners nothing. When on 15 September 2011 I saw on TV David Cameron, the then British Prime-Minister, and President of France Nicolas Sarkozy in the centre of the jubilant crowd in Tripoli celebrating the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, I recalled a hilarious French comedy Tais-toi (Shut up). In the film two run-away criminals played by the best French actors have put on women’s attire instead of their prison robes. When approaching a shop window, they face their mirror-images. A half-wit Quentin, played by Gérard Depardieu, exclaims: Look at those two fags! To what ruse Ruby, played by Jean Reno, responds: You, idiot, these are us. The political leaders of Great Britain and France in September 2011 both reminded me one of those fictional characters. They indeed did not know and understand what they were doing, what kind of genie they were going to let out of the bottle. French journalist Renaud Girard, writing about the problems and causes of the failure of the “Arab Spring” and the almost inevitable choice in some Arab countries between military dictatorships and militant Islamists, nevertheless singles out Syria. He emphasises: “In Syria, the reality is that there is the civil war between the army of the regime and rebels, who in their majority are Islamists. The third way [i.e., between the authoritarian regime and Islamists] exists only as a minute candle at the end of an immense tunnel – as a dream supported by the Westerners”. [3]

There is another parallel. This one is not between Libya and Syria – the countries that have suffered the most from the “Arab spring”, which was warmly welcomed by those who reminded me the heroes of the French comedy. This is a parallel between the two situations in Syria separated in time and space. When, in late autumn of 2016, it was becoming clear that the troops of Bashar al-Assad, with the help of the Russian air force, would liberate Aleppo from terrorists and their so-called “moderate” allies supported by the West, France tabled a Security Council resolution calling to end the bombardment of the Eastern Aleppo – the stronghold of the terrorists, referring to the humanitarian concerns. It was clear for every competent person that Russia could not afford to have such a resolution passed and therefore Moscow vetoed it. French scholar and reserve colonel Caroline Galactéros wrote then that the hastily tabled French draft was meant by Paris, London and Washington to fuel the international indignation against Moscow.[4] The American request, made by means of the French proposal, to stop bombing Eastern Aleppo “for humanitarian reasons” would have allowed the Islamists (al-Nusra and its allies) to consolidate their positions, serving the civilian population as human shield. Meanwhile they would have continued shelling the Western Aleppo and prevented Damascus and Moscow to radically change the balance power in their favour.

In these days Western political leaders are worried that the liberation of the Idlib province from terrorists would end the war with Bashar el-Assad still be in power. American defence analyst Daniel DePetris in his recent article regretting that by use of “brute and indiscriminate force” (as if the opponents, including Al Qaida and its emanations together with ISIS as well as so-called “moderates”, observed meticulously all the laws of war) the “regime” is going to win, writes: “Syria was once a beautiful nation filled with ancient history and breath-taking architecture. The war has pulverized much of that beauty; all you need to do is take a few looks at the satellite images to witness the extent of the physical devastation”.[5] Yes, it was a beautiful country even under the dictatorship of President Assad the father and President Assad the son. And this dictatorship was, according to the Middle Eastern standards, relatively enlightened. Minorities, including the Christians, lived in peace with the Sunni majority under the “benevolent dictatorship” of the Alawite minority.

Why to destroy such a country and who has contributed the most to it? Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch recently published an article with the title that says all: “Before we pay $250 bn to ‘rebuild Syria’, we should force Putin to stop the endless death and destruction”.[6] However, it all started with, sorry for non-diplomatic language but sometimes precision and politeness are opposites, idiotic battle cries in Western capitals: Gaddafi has to go, Mubarak has to go, Assad has to go. Russia entered militarily into play in support of the government (sorry, should I parrot “regime”?) only at the end of 2015, while the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and Turkey had supported the rebels from the very beginning. For the sake of brevity, let me give only one example. So, Qatar had funded the Syrian rebellion by as much as $3 billion over the first two years and sent most of the weapons to Syria via Turkey, with over 70 weapons cargo flights between April 2012 and March 2013.[7] The Western support, not only political and material but also direct military, to the opposition is also well documented, though rarely widely publicised. Of course, besides Russia, Iran and the Lebanon based Hezbollah have given President Assad a substantial support. But the scale of the support was incomparable with the support given to the opposition. Moreover, this was the support to a legitimate government, member of the United Nations.

In the landmark Nicaragua case (1986) the International Court of Justice dealt with the issue of intervention on behalf of an opposition, when the Court had “to consider whether there might be indications of a practice illustrative of belief in a kind of general right for States to intervene, directly or indirectly, with or without armed force, in support of an internal opposition in another State, whose cause appeared particularly worthy by reason of the political and moral values with which it was identified. For such a general right to come into existence would involve a fundamental modification of the customary law principle of non-intervention” (para. 206 of the Judgement). Having studied practice and legal opinions of many states, the Court found that “no such general right of intervention, in support of an opposition within another State, exists in contemporary international law” (para. 209).

One may, of course, argue that the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs has become, especially in the light of the developments of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, outdated (in that case, why accuse Russia for its alleged interference in American presidential elections?). However, a stable international order cannot be built on the rejection of such fundamental principles as the prohibition to use force, to intervene in international affairs and respect for sovereignty of all states.

[1] Le Figaro, 28 août, 2018.

[2] Le Figaro, 24 août, 2018

[3] R. Girard, Le monde en guerre. 50 clefs pour le comprendre (Carnets Nords, 2016), p. 35.

[4] C. Galactéros, ‘La décision de Vladimir Poutin humilie la diplomatie français’, Figaro Vox/Tribune, 11 Octobre 2016.

[5] D. DePetris, ‘What Comes Next to Syria?’, The National Interest, 27 August 2018.

[6] The Independent, 26 August 2018.

[7] Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding Smith, ‘Qatar bankrolls Syrian revolt with cash and arms”, Financial Times, 16 May 2013.

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