By early November, United Nations officials were optimistic about the prospects of finding a resolution to the now seven-year Syrian Civil War. Direct talks between a delegation of the major opposition groups and the Syrian government at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, were planned to begin on November 28 and run through early December.
The transition to direct negotiation was carefully planned to elevate the pressure for compromise, since early conferences made use of UN diplomatic mediators to indirectly convey demands between the two sides. Yet, beginning with a conference of the opposition groups in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 22 to 24, some of the rebels’ demands threatened the possibility of success at Geneva.
Most of the demands in the communique written at Riyadh were uncontroversial. In their statement, the opposition coalition called for “Syrians to draft their constitution without interference and to [hold] free, fair and transparent elections.” However, calls for the removal of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and his advisors, even from any interim government, immediately provoked controversy with the government delegation.
The Syrian government did not immediately respond to the resolution, and on November 24, the Riyadh group reaffirmed that it was ready to negotiate without any preconditions. Yet the government delegation arrived later than expected to attend the Geneva talks on November 28, possibly in a show of disapproval for the Riyadh statement. During the talks, opposition and government negotiators remained in separate rooms with no sign of direct negotiations.
On December 1, the government negotiators left the Geneva talks and returned to Damascus. In a press conference, their chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja‘afari said, “As long as the other side sticks to the language of Riyadh 2, … there will be no progress.” Claiming that the statement had “imposed a kind of precondition,” al-Ja’afari said its “language is provocative, irresponsible” and that his government saw it as “a step back rather than progress forward.”
In the wake of the walkout, leader of the opposition Yahya al-Aridi countered, “We have come to this round with no preconditions.” Chief opposition negotiator Nasr Hariri urged “the international community,” namely the United States and Russia, to “put pressure on the regime to engage with this process.” Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria and mediator for the Geneva talks, expressed confidence to reporters that the government negotiators would return to the table by December 5 after deliberating in Damascus.
Meanwhile, the shelling by both sides in the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus continued on November 30, blocking humanitarian access to the thousands of residents suffering from starvation and lack of medical access. A November UNICEF report estimated that 11% of the children in Eastern Ghouta suffer from malnutrition, highlighting the need to evacuate and treat residents from the warzone.
The Syrian Air Force brought the most damage to the suburb, releasing Soviet-era cluster bombs that target indiscriminately and are prone to cause collateral damage to civilians. Officials from humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International have condemned the usage of the widely-outlawed armaments. “The Syrian government is committing war crimes on an epic scale in Eastern Ghouta,” said Philip Luther, the Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty. Doctors in the region also report the presence of the chemical organophosphorus, or white phosphorus, which can be used to create nerve agents. This is as yet unverified.
Still, the usage of nerve agents in Syria is not unheard of, especially as videos came out of a gas attack in northern Syria on April 7 that showed victims filling up the streets, paralyzed and unable to breathe. Autopsies of the attack’s victims in at a medical center in Turkey revealed that they were exposed to sarin, a nerve agent banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria joined in 2013. The UN, US, and many other Western nations, based on ballistic evidence and the location of the attack, accused the Assad government of being responsible for the April 7 attack, while the government maintains that the rebels had committed the strike.
An MCPS parent, who has asked not to be named, responded to the bombings in Eastern Ghouta. “It’s outrageous,” they said. “And I think it’s well-established that the Assad government has used chemical weapons on its own population in the past, so it’s unsurprising that these reports are still coming in. Putin and Assad can create their own narratives,” said the parent.
Since the Syrian government’s crackdown on the Arab Spring protests gripping the Middle East in 2011, nearly 5.5 million Syrians have registered as refugees, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR also estimates only 9% of this population has settled in refugee camps, with the rest roaming across the world looking for new homes. Out of these refugees, roughly 1 million have applied for asylum to European nations, 64% of whom applied to Germany and Sweden. The application for asylum also can include dependents and spouses, effectively making the total number of asylum seekers much greater than what the above figure suggests.
The influx of immigrants has sparked fears of increased jihadist activity in Europe, leading to a resurgence of right-wing platforms vowing to stem the tide of migrants in various countries. In Poland, far-right activists led a National Independence Day march that warned of the dangers of radical Islamic terrorism with the influx of migrants. In June of last year, Britain voted to formally begin leaving the European Union, with organizations like Vote Leave warning on their website that staying in the EU meant that “immigration will continue to be out of control.”
The concern about terrorism is partially justified, given a recent string of jihadist attacks in France, Germany, and Britain that has gripped international media, such as the infamous 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, the 2016 truck attack in the French town of Nice, or the 2017 Westminster Palace attack in London. While the perpetrators behind all three attacks were of Middle Eastern or Northern African origin, none of them were considered refugees and were either born in Europe or, in the case of the Nice attacker, arrived over a decade before their actions.
This trend is corroborated in a 2017 study conducted by Maria do Céu Pinto Arena, who found that “the main threat may not come … immigrants -, but from … within – the radicalised, home-grown terrorists in Western countries.” According to the libertarian thinktank Cato Institute, in the United States, there have been 20 terrorists between 1975 and 2015 who had entered the country as refugees, with one plot by Cuban exiles resulting in the death of three Americans in the 1970s. Roughly 3.25 million refugees were accepted into the United States during that period.
The difficulty of securing asylum has often times led refugees seeking to escape the Syrian Civil War and jihadist activity in the Middle East to desperate measures. Families often hire the services of smugglers who promise to get them to Greek or Italian shores over the Mediterranean. In 2016, around 300 thousand refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea in this manner, with roughly four thousand reported to have died or disappeared during the journey. One such victim was three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who washed up on the shores of Turkey alongside his 5-year-old brother Galip. They drowned after their smugglers’ dinghy had capsized and were discovered on a beach by Turkish authorities on September 2, 2015. The photographs of the morbid scene captured the world’s attention as a sign of the human cost of the Syrian Civil War.
On December 5, the Geneva talks continued without the government negotiators. According to Syrian media outlets, there is “no final decision” yet as to whether the negotiators will return Geneva. For now, the question of Syria and the refugees is far from being answered.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Alex Rankine of Rockville High School