This Canada Day, we should celebrate the freedom we often take for granted. If you want to know what it looks like not to be free, the world still has Syria to show us what that looks like.
The slightest indication that the great mass of people would like to participate in their own governance has occasioned, for the better part of two years now, vicious attacks from the government of Bashar al-Assad that have even specifically targeted children, torturing and killing them for crimes as small as spraypainting anti-Assad graffiti.
UN-sponsored talks between some of the world’s current major powers have recently concluded to try to fashion a “transition” arrangement in Syria – though a transition to what, it is not clear. The Russians spent most of their time at this conference insisting that Assad had every right to be a part of the transition government, which, of course, is a deal-killer for those in the opposition – what better sign that such a government would not offer any kind of a “transition”?
Essentially, the delegates to this conference arrived there with the same positions that they depart with.
I do not, in principle, have a problem with “unity government” solutions to these kinds of problems. They can work – though we must always be clear that “work” is a relative term, and what is meant is that they can work better than the alternative would “work”.
Zimbabwe, for example, has had such a national unity government now since 2009. Democratic parties led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutumbara have participated in a government with the murderous and dictatorial Robert Mugabe, and this has resulted in some important progress, particularly in reversing Zimbabwe’s deep economic problems. This was not an easy road for the democratic opposition in Zimbabwe to take. One of the proposed ministers from Tsvangirai’s party was charged spuriously with treason (he has since fled to South Africa), and Tsvangirai’s wife was killed in a suspicious car accident, in which Tsvangirai himself suffered injuries, both as the new unity government was in the process of being assembled. Surely supporters of the democracy movement there must have started to wonder whether they were chumps for thinking they could cooperate with the likes of Mugabe. But things have gotten better in Zimbabwe because they have, and it is possible that, when the 88-year-old Mugabe finally dies, Zimbabwe could make an orderly transition and have a decent democratic government.
But make no mistake – those who propose a “unity government” for Syria are asking of the Syrian opposition that it risk everything that the Zimbabwean opposition has gone through.
Furthermore, the danger remains that a dictator, momentarily on the ropes enough to accept a “unity government” deal, will use the time in such a government to rest up, consolidate forces, and then attack democratic movements with renewed vigour. The Libyan opposition, when asked to make a similar unity deal with Colonel Gaddafi last year, refused because after four decades under their military leader, they knew there would be an inevitable counteroffensive after any tactical retreat. They knew they needed to finish him once and for all.
What should Syrians do? That is, as everyone blandly says, for Syrians to decide…but we should have more context about what their choices really are. If the Syrian opposition is to be expected to accept a “unity government” in which a butcher like Assad is permitted to participate, it must, at least, have some idea of what such a government would accomplish for them. There can’t be vague goals or unclear mechanisms, and there must be timetables and benchmarks for implementation.
The people who need to be convinced about all of this, indeed, are those in the Syrian opposition, not the foreign powers who sat at the UN conference table. The chances are greater, however, that they will be convinced participation in such a government is warranted if they see signs that Assad has been thoroughly diplomatically isolated, even by Russia and China.
Perhaps that can still be achieved. Perhaps this conference was a step towards that kind of diplomatic isolation. But we’re not there yet, and until we are, it’s hard to imagine the Syrian opposition will be open to “unity government” overtures anytime soon.