Illusory UN peace plan has failed to stop Syrian horror

Thu, May 31, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:The UN has made the classic mistake of trying to oversee a peace agreement that never existed, writes RAY MURPHY

THE HOULA massacre was an atrocity waiting to happen. It is a chilling reminder of similar events in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.

The deployment of United Nations observers was viewed by many as a final opportunity to facilitate a resolution of the crisis in Syria. In reality, it was too little and too late. The UN has been too slow to react, stymied by the Russian and Chinese support for the status quo.

Houla is just the most recent in a long list of atrocities against civilians. The Assad regime has employed shabiha “ghost” militias to carry out its dirty work.

Testimony from Houla points to the government militias’ responsibility for the appalling violence inflicted on innocent civilians, predominantly women and children. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was never really committed to UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan involving release of detainees, meaningful political dialogue, humanitarian access, degree of freedom of association to protest and the freedom of the press.

A further complication to the peace plan is the fact that the rebel forces opposing the Assad regime are disparate groups without a cohesive command structure to ensure co-operation or compliance. Assad’s shabiha militia will also prove difficult to restrain and control.

The truth is the Assad regime and those keeping him in power do not want to reach an accommodation with those they deem rebel and terrorist forces.

At this stage, they have more to lose than to gain from any settlement with opposition forces. They will have to relinquish power and then run the risk of being held accountable for the countless atrocities that have been committed since protests began.

Whole families have been reported killed, women raped and civilians deliberately targeted by security forces.

The scale of the violence against civilians provides compelling evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes being committed in the course of the crackdown on protesters.

Under the international legal doctrine of command or superior responsibility, Assad and his senior leaders can be held accountable for the crimes committed while they held power.

The Assad regime has exploited tensions with the Sunni majority and the conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone.

There is now a real fear among the minority Alawites that concessions will only embolden the opposition and spell the end of the current regime.

The opposition does not want to accommodate a continuance of the Assad regime either. Mediation can only work when the parties are seeking a peaceful resolution. A further complication is the disparity in the power equation between both sides. The UN needs to be careful not to facilitate a resolution that amounts to government forces maintaining the upper hand and being unwilling to initiate any real reforms.

The UN has made the classic error of trying to oversee a peace agreement that did not exist. It does not matter that the majority of Syrians may wish to seek a peaceful accommodation, the militants on one side and the diehard supporters of the old regime on the other want the annihilation of their opponents.

In the mayhem that has followed, the consequences for ordinary civilians are of little concern to either party.

The opposition is fragmented and may include outside militant Islamist groups. In the chaos that is unfolding, these groups are likely to increase.

The brutal civil war in Lebanon that destabilised the region for so long is a harbinger of what may come. Already neighbouring countries are struggling to deal with the refugee crisis.

The fall of Assad will have unpredictable national and regional consequences. While it would constitute a serious blow to Iran’s regional influence, it would also threaten the long-standing peaceful co-existence between Israel and Syria.

Assad’s regime is weaker now than ever before. Its brutal repression has lost it many of its former allies, most notably Turkey and the Palestinian militia Hamas. Nato powers bear their share of the blame for the UN impasse. Having sought a UN resolution to protect civilians in Libya, it soon turned to regime change. It is hardly surprising the Russians and Chinese are suspicious of western intentions.

Unfortunately, this means the UN has been unable to react to protect civilians and stem the tide of violence. Regional powers, in conjunction with the UN, stand the best chance of influencing the outcome of events. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia bear a heavy responsibility for how events will unfold.

UN observers are at the mercy of both sides for their security and freedom of movement.

Amnesty International has called for robust mechanisms for monitoring and investigating the crimes being committed in Syria.

Assad and his cohorts need a reminder of what awaits those who flout international law. The 50-year sentence for war crimes handed down to Charles Taylor yesterday demonstrates that even former heads of state can be held to account.

Prof Ray Murphy is director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the school of law, NUI Galway. He has served as a military officer on UN peacekeeping missions in the Middle East

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