Foreword

There is no Nelson Mandela in Syria and it may take generations before one can talk about normalization in Syria: Nikolaos Van Dam


I first met Dr. Nikolaos van Dam in Damascus years before the revolution. He totally fascinated me with his deep knowledge and mild nature. I later saw him in Istanbul in 2016. He was the Special Envoy for Syria and he got only more elegant and knowledgeable in his area of knowledge. Not many people can be both academic and active but Van Dam is. Retired now, Van Dam has more time to contemplate on Syria and to see where things went wrong in the Syrian revolution. His latest book Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (also in Arabic (2018): تدمير وطن: الحرب الاهلية في سوريا) is maybe the most comprehensive and objective report on Syria. He explains the recent history of Syria, covering the growing disenchantment with the Assad regime, the chaos of civil war and the fractures which led to the rise and expansion of ISIS. Through an in-depth examination of the role of sectarian, regional and tribal loyalties in Syria, van Dam traces political developments within the Assad regime and the military and civilian power elite from the Arab Spring to the present day.

December 5, 2018


There is no Nelson Mandela in Syria and it may take generations before one can talk about normalization in Syria: Nikolaos Van Dam

Source: Wael Sawah – Pro-justice

Nikolaos van Dam* is a Dutch diplomat and scholar, author of a classic text on Syrian politics and sectarianism, The Struggle for Power in Syria (2011). During the Syrian uprising, he served as the Dutch Special Envoy to Syria, operating from Istanbul, and had intensive contact with most of the parties involved in the conflict. His book, Destroying a Nation, reflects those experiences.

Van Dam spoke to Pro-justice on issues related to the political solution, accountability, and the role of foreign powers in Syria. He is one of the few European academics who can claim deep knowledge on the subject. Having served as Ambassador of the Netherlands to Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, Van Dam also had a stint (in 2015-16) as his country’s Special Envoy for Syria. In that last assignment, Van Dam monitored the situation from his base in neighboring Turkey.

I asked Van Dam if the Syrian revolution was over and if the regime and its allies made their utmost victory. Van Dam said the uprising has failed, because the opposition groups have not been able to achieve their proclaimed aim of winning the war and toppling the regime. The regime, he says, appears to be on its way to a military victory, but winning the war militarily speaking does not yet mean that there will be peace in Syria; far from it. Having no war does not necessarily mean having peace. And without a satisfactory “solution”, another future revolution may be in the making, whether successful or not.

Is there any hope? The Syrian refugees abroad can be expected to keep the flame of the revolution going because they want to get rid of the regime at least as much as before. However, Van Dam has little hope that “under the present circumstances they can change much in the situation inside Syria itself.” And the so-called “Friends of the Syrian People”? Some of them may want to use their military presence as a kind of bargaining chip to extract political concessions from the regime, with the aim of supporting opposition groups to obtain things from the regime which they have not been able to achieve after more than seven years of war. However, Van Dam doubts whether there is any chance of success in such an approach, except, perhaps, if it were intended by foreign powers to serve their regional strategic interests. But this will be of little help to the main Syrian opposition groups.

I first met Dr. Nikolaos van Dam in Damascus years before the revolution. He totally fascinated me with his deep knowledge and mild nature. I later saw him in Istanbul in 2016. He was the Special Envoy for Syria and he got only more elegant and knowledgeable in his area of knowledge. Not many people can be both academic and active but Van Dam is. Retired now, Van Dam has more time to contemplate on Syria and to see where things went wrong in the Syrian revolution. His latest book Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (also in Arabic (2018): تدمير وطن: الحرب الاهلية في سوريا) is maybe the most comprehensive and objective report on Syria. He explains the recent history of Syria, covering the growing disenchantment with the Assad regime, the chaos of civil war and the fractures which led to the rise and expansion of ISIS. Through an in-depth examination of the role of sectarian, regional and tribal loyalties in Syria, van Dam traces political developments within the Assad regime and the military and civilian power elite from the Arab Spring to the present day.

While a political solution might be molded underway, some civil society and legal groups believe there cannot be a reconciliation without accountability. I asked Dr. Van Dam if there was any hope that the international forces find a way in the end to send the major perpetrators to court? Van Dam first wanted to know between whom the reconciliation should take place. He takes it for granted that the civil society and legal groups 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 the view of Van Dam, 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 Van Dam strongly doubts 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 there is no possibility for reconciliation, particularly under the present dictatorship. And who could lead the reconciliation? Asks Van Dam: 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.

Ambassador Van Dam later says that although the ideal hypothesis is that there cannot be real peace without full justice and accountability, this will be very difficult to put into practice. On the other hand, making the main perpetrators of this war, from whatever side, accountable, would not in itself result in real peace and reconciliation. There has been too much bloodshed for that, Van Dam concluded.

But when Van Dam is 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, Van Dam reckoned, 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.

Ambassador Van Dam and I share one view vis-à-vis the Western democracies. We both believe that they deceived the Syrian opposition by making promises or suggestions to it, including military intervention, which they had no intention of delivering. He is especially critical of former US President Barack Obama who launched the mantra “Assad must go” and set “red lines” which the Syrian despot ended up by crossing with impunity.

We also share the view that militarizing the revolution was one of the biggest mistakes committed by the opposition. Van Dam believes that militarization gave the regime an extra argument to suppress the revolution. However, 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. But it is never a one side vision: without arms, Van Dam argues, 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.

*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

https://nikolaosvandam.academia.edu