A never ending conflict at unacceptable human cost, which perpetually doubles the stakes like a winning formula for suffering; an incomprehensible crisis with so much overlaying of national, regional and geopolitical stakes, upon deep religious and ethnic divisions, confusing analysis; a bone of contention between traditionally friendly powers and a common ground of unholy alliances; finally, a graveyard of good intentions. Of course, everyone has recognized, it is Syria. But who remembers that, yesterday, it was South Africa?
For Syria, we know. Day after day, its citizens are unfolding on our screens in their frantic flight to Europe, never mind what country, as long as it is not their own. In five years, what began as an emancipating revolt in the context of the “Arab Spring” has deteriorated into a mayhem of causes none of which seems good. A “dictator”, Bashir al-Assad, defends with his back to the wall, beleaguered by a “moderate” opposition, supposedly democratic and, increasingly, by jihadists, the Islamic State in the lead. Syria has become the battlefield of regional powers who hold each other in check.
Since Russia decided to provide a counterbalance to the United States, air campaign against air campaign, even the idea of a victory, of whatever camp, faded like a mirage. Hence the exodus of civilians caught between all the fires and, now, without hope of survival.
Our first duty is to give them this hope. And it is possible. Let us recall the South Africa of the apartheid era. There too, like today with the Assad clan heading up the Alawi community, some 12 percent of the Syrian population, there was a minority – white – monopolizing the political and economic power. The neighbouring states called “the front-line countries” were interwoven in the anti-apartheid struggle and, in retaliation, exposed to destabilization by proxy rebel movements. Finally, in the logic of the cold war, the United States and their allies, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Soviet Union and Cuba had taken the cause for “the bastion of the free world” to the tip of Africa or against “the racist South African regime”. During this time, black townships were burning, a whole generation was not going to school, and Angola as well as Mozambique were devastated by proxy wars. The future was apprehensively viewed as a broad regional conflagration, the exodus of Whites or a blood bath, if not all this at once.
We know the result. The belligerents, at all levels, spoke with each other, without exclusivity or preconditions. The Americans sat at the same table as the Cubans, at a time when the Castro regime was demonised by Washington; the front-line countries concluded a truce with the regional white supremacy power; the ANC activists began discussion with their oppressors, this power which had practically denied their humanity.
The “South African miracle”, this was first and foremost a reversal of perspectives: eyes were no longer fixed on the balance of the past, meaning old scores to settle, but on the promise of a future in which all could live. This solution was not in itself a miracle- South Africa today is evidence – but profoundly human. By small steps, they moved away from the open grave.
In order for Syria to do the same, two lessons must be learned from the example of South Africa. On the one hand, the logic according to which “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” greases an infernal spiral. Thus, Iran and its local militia, Hezbollah, defends a regime that they rely on in the Shiite camp while Saudi Arabia, normally hardly a proselyte relating to freedom, supports a democratic opposition because it is Sunni. However, such mechanical alliances seal the martyrdom of Syria, the chessboard of causes that are not their own. The forces there must now be disentangled. Once again, this is possible. I was myself involved in the negotiations that led to this result in southern Africa where the regional peace was concluded in December 1988 – eleven months before the end of the cold war.
On the other hand, the search for peace is not a ballroom of propriety to which only favoured people are invited. The former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martti Ahtisaari, revealed, on September 15th in The Guardian, that the western powers in the Security Council had rejected, in 2012, the Russian offer of a negotiated departure of Bashir al-Assad. At the time, the latter had already been written off by gains and losses.
Since then, more by self esteem than out of solidarity with the victims of his regime, the West wants to decapitate the Alawi dynasty before admitting it to the negotiating table. We think that by cutting off the head the body will survive. Whatever one may think of the Syrian leader, this stubbornness amounts to a crime against peace.
France is particularly poorly placed to perpetrate it. When it governed Syria, as the mandated power after the First World War, was it not France who created “the country of the Alawis” thus giving birth to a uniqueness that it now seeks to negate?