Hacking the Syria Peace Process, a European imperative

Pour le lancement de l’ONG Danaïdes fondée en 2017 avec Stéphanie Lamy, nous publions une analyse du conflit syrien, ainsi que des recommandations à destination de l’Union Européenne et de ses États membres.

« Faced with increasing Russian aggression and American nationalism, the European Union needs to forge a strategy which fathoms in the parameters of hybrid warfare in the civil society landscape – not by engaging in a similarly subversive offensive which would only weaponise CSOs further, creating more chaos and sustaining the conflict – but by developing a distributed system of aid delivery which preserves the neutrality and independence of civil society. Integrating such a tool into the EEAS Global Strategy might help the European Union strike the right balance between guaranteeing the Syrian people ownership of the peace process, and flexing its own diplomatic strength. »

Hacking the Syria Peace Process, a European imperative

Hacking the Syria Peace Process, a European imperative.

For six years the Syrian regime has been waging a war on civilians and the civil society initiatives which have emerged during the conflict. Described by Mary Kaldor as “new wars[1], this form of hybrid warfare  – and its endgame – combines state and non-state actors. It isn’t only massively lethal to the population but underscores civilisational paradigm shifts. As recently highlighted by the Russian and Turkey sponsored Astana talks,

foregoing to include the legitimate concerns of the civil society in ceasefire negotiations undermines the progressive liberal process of peacebuilding and reinstates an illiberal neorealist vision of managing – and benefiting from – perpetual powerplay.

In the wake of Syria ceasefire talks in Astana[2], Kazakhstan, it is difficult to ignore that the sponsors Russia and Turkey, as well as the participants (the Syrian, Iranian regimes, and the armed Syrian opposition groups) all arrived with wildly diverging interests, which left their expectations unmet. The announced talking points at these Russian organised “peace talks” included cessation of hostilities,but also releasing detainees and access to humanitarian aid in besieged areas. The first Astana talks in 2017 also coincided with an unrelated United Nations sponsored conference on humanitarian aid held in Helsinki, Finland. Seizing the opportunity of this scheduling coincidence, a coalition of 97 NGOs called on Russia & Turkey to ensure that the Astana Talks unlock humanitarian access & end fighting in Syria[3] and reminded the organisers that “the success of the talks will be measured by the abiding commitments made by all parties to unlock humanitarian access, end unlawful sieges, uphold the ceasefire and reconvene for inclusive political negotiations under UN auspices in Geneva”  The fact that humanitarian aid has become a strategic lever in cease-fire talks is symbolic of how hybrid wars will be fought, and, more broadly, how their resolution impacts the shift in power from liberal to illiberal States. In the current political context, the European Union is shaping up to be one of the last bastions of liberal principles. In this context, the EU needs to redefine its civil-society cooperation as defined by the EEAS Global Strategy which suggests that it should “deepen (our) partnerships with civil society and the private sector as key players in a networked world”.[4] The EU has to step up its game in promoting local Syrian civil society during the Geneva peace talks, both to steer the process towards a better outcome, and consolidate its legitimate place as a global power broker.

Where there’s a gap there are people.

“When a state does not exist or when it is weak, fragmented or failing, the already blurred lines separating the state from civil society become even fuzzier. In these situations, civil society comes to occupy part of the space normally filled by the functioning state” (Marchetti-Tocci 2009)[5].

When large swathes of a country in armed conflict don’t benefit from State sponsored humanitarian aid – simply because the State, or its local ersatz, hog the resources – civilians will step up and fill that gap. We saw this happen recently in the Libyan conflict[6], as well as during the Yemeni revolution[7]. The Yemeni, Libyan and Syrian conflicts are complex alveolated wars within wars. The civil and “uncivil”[8] society which emerges during these periods of armed violence mirrors the complicated clusters of influence on zone and their support networks abroad. As of 2011, the Assad regime’s ruthless military response evicted entire populations from towns which protested and people were detained or killed. Militant groups have moved in and civil society in these areas have to either contend with these warring factions or face yet another repression[9].

By implementing a multi-pronged strategy which plays out in the civil society landscape Assad and his State sponsors are aiming to eliminate any possible space for democratic debate on the future of Syria further down the line.

Kinetic

The most visible and destructive front of the Assad regime’s strategy of civil society repression is that which is fought with conventional, and sometimes unconventional weapons. Humanitarian aid and civil society has been targeted repeatedly and increasingly since the beginning of Syrian uprisings in 2011, attacks which have accelerated since Russia joined the fray in September 2015. Enforced disappearances of doctors, humanitarians, civilians not directly participating in hostilities and perceived to be “helping the rebels” are common and have affected humanitarian actors and journalists or media activists alike[10]. Besides actually committing these crimes themselves, the regime has also organised the displacement of activists to hostile territories. For example, french journalist Laura-Maï Gaveriaux reported that after being forcibly removed from Eastern Aleppo and relocated to the Idlib region in December 2016 by the Assad regime, journalists Bahaa Al Halaby and Layth Alkasar seem to have been kidnapped and detained (since released) in January 2017[11] possibly by the region’s governing Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (al-Nusra) related militants. Another example is that of Abdulhadi Kamel, wounded and abducted by regime-linked Hezbollah militia during during the Aleppo evacuation, who has now been detained by Assad forces and tortured into a false confession of working for the Syrian Defence Force, which the regime claims to be a “fake” organisation[12].

Russian and Syrian government forces deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities over the course of the last three months of 2016 in a bid to pave the way for ground forces during their advance on Aleppo.[13] Organisations such as Physicians for Human Rights are actively mapping the over 400 attacks on health facilities and their staff. The Assad regime and Russia[14] deny any involvement, yet open source investigative journalism organisations, such as Bellingcat, clearly debunk their claims[15]. The Aleppo assault culminated in the forced displacement of the remaining population of Eastern Aleppo in December 2016. Rebranded as an “evacuation”, essentially an “humanitarian” operation organised by the regime, it could qualify as a crime against Humanity. Instead of working to halt the regime onslaught on civilians, the United Nations Security Council, in its resolution 2328[16], acknowledged “the fact that urgent humanitarian evacuations and assistance are now needed by a large number of Aleppo inhabitants” while emphasizing that “the evacuations of civilians must be voluntary and to final destinations of their choice”.[17] In order to oversee some of the proceedings, the UNSC had no choice but to validate this forced displacement of the population, which poses an ethical conundrum: Is it ok to participate in one crime against Humanity to avoid another, possibly a massacre of civilian populations?

Unlawful detainments, killings and displacements, systematic targeting of health facilities and those who operate them can amount to violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against Humanity. Yet by imposing its low ethical standards on the international community, the Assad regime forces us to subvert our fundamental humanitarian principles, endlessly pushing back the “red line” of what may be tolerated from a murderous regime.

Economic

Tactical engagement against humanitarian aid in Syria is simultaneously supported by, and benefits the war economy directly. With massive relief efforts delivered by the international community and organisations, ransoming or hoarding humanitarian aid seems to be a trend that has accelerated globally in the past decades and in which the Syrian rebel groups have also partaken[18]. However, the Assad regime now controls all of the United Nations massive funding for relief efforts. Invoking his legitimacy as the head of the Syrian State, the United Nations must abide by the regime’s playbook in order to be even partially effective on the ground. Regulating civil society is a longstanding tradition in Syria, a legacy from the 1963 Emergency Laws which continued to be enforced until the civil uprising in 2011[19] [20]. Trained to hoard, Damascus also restricts which organisations the UN can work with and keeps a list of regime-approved international and Syrian organisations which the UN cannot bypass[21]. The UN has therefore awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with Assad, including businessmen whose companies are under US and EU sanctions[22]. By the sheer size and the funding they are perceived to represent, international state sponsored organisations have become an easy, cumbersome target in economic warfare.

There are many ways to turn a profit during war, and the Assad regime seems to actively encourage sources of internal and external funding including incentivising soldiers at besieged area checkpoints to extract as much money as they can, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the trapped populations[23]. This type of practice was already known in German history as Brandschatzung[24], and involved the marching of troops up to the walls of a city and the extraction of money through threats of pillage and burning[25]. Segmentation of civilian populations provide extortion or blackmail leverages to both state and non-state armed forces. In December 2016, researcher Aron Lund reported that a regime-backed and rebel-linked owner of a cheese factory, Mohieddine Manfoush, secured a monopoly on food to the besieged and famished[26] Damascus suburb enclave of Eastern Ghouta[27].

It is crucial to investigate the economic roles of humanitarian actors in a warfare economy in order to identify their nefariousness or neutrality. Adhering to the “do no harm” mantra as a guiding principle for humanitarian and development intervention civil conflict actors should be identified as parties which maintain equity and impartiality in providing basic needs, this as a means to withdraw civil society from warfare logic.[28] Uncivil conflict actors seek to prolong conflict for their own political and/or economical benefit by fuelling the economy of warfare through segmented, partisan approaches of humanitarian aid. In this forced transactional context, economic warfare as well as disinformation campaigns become a crucial tactical tool to legitimise uncivil society, whilst decredibilising any organisation that they perceive to be opposition linked.

Cognitive

Coercitive warfare economy is only prosperous in distrustful, chaotic environments, and confusionnism is also maintained by various forms of information warfare. One method to create confusion in the information space is dezinformatsiya – disinformation campaigns – such as the pro-Syrian regime and Russian campaign to undermine the credibility of the Syrian Civil Defence Force, one of the more prominent civil society initiatives that has emerged during the six year long Syrian conflict. Whilst performing what could be one most dangerous jobs in the world, Syrian Defence volunteers, also known as White Helmets, as well as their umbrella organisation, the Syria Campaign, are facing a smear operation that goes beyond distasteful. Yes, the Syrian Civil Defense is financed and largely set up by foreign backers. Yes, they operate in stateless rebel held areas – including those managed by militants of the more extremist variety – because civilians, facing a security gap, stepped up. In an article on Abdulhadi Kamel, wounded and abducted by regime-linked Hezbollah militia during during the Aleppo evacuation, paper which unmasks the Assad regime’s practice of forced confessions, a source close to the White Helmets explained : Just because you have to dance with the devil to be able to operate, doesn’t mean you fancy him.”[29] 

Coextensive with thwarting actual civil society initiatives, and in order to fashion a factice symmetry between civil and uncivil society initiatives, another dangerous trend in the information warfare toolbox is the promotion by illiberal regimes of lobbying groups masquerading as humanitarian organisations –the NGO equivalent of Russia’s “little green men”[30]. Whilst the politicisation of aid and development isn’t new and this strategy has been deployed in the past to further the values of liberal states especially after the end of the Cold War[31], it is sadly ironic that these fake NGOs are now also exploited to roll back the influence of civil society in favour of state authority. The politicisation of NGOs in conflict zones has largely developed under religious or identitarian pretexts, as was noted during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979[32] with charities lobbying muslim donors and funding jihadi factions to counter what was perceived to be the occupation by an “atheist force”[33] – a practice that has continued to various degrees during the Syrian conflict[34]. But Islamic charities aren’t the only controversial actors in the Syrian civil society landscape. The Assad regime has a long history of pitting minorities against the largely majoritarian Sunnis. This “defeat in detail” tactic includes maintaining the fallacy that the Assad regime protects minorities[35]. His regime has patronised sectarian NGOs such as the new french SOS Chrétiens d’Orient which claims to provide humanitarian aid to the very diverse Christian communities in the Levant. Founded by ultra-conservative french right-wing politicians[36], SOS Chrétiens d’Orient has been accused by long established Charities such as the Oeuvre d’Orient to spoof their identity[37] in order to serve a political agenda, both in Syria and in France. Conservative politicians from the French right are regularly invited by the NGO to visit Syria’s regime held areas, including after the “fall” of Aleppo, providing Assad’s political support networks in France, especially in the run-up to France’s presidential elections, with on-the-ground photo ops and a veneer of street cred on foreign affairs[38]. Another such “dual usage” NGO, which has long since abandoned pretending to intervene in a humanitarian capacity is the American non-profit AACCESS (Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services) which funded the highly controversial visit with Assad by Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard in January 2017[39].Religious minorities, including Christians are not a politically homogenous block and the campaigns led by uncivil NGOs such as SOS Chrétiens d’Orient don’t only pigeonhole this diverse community into the pro-regime slot, but could actually maintain sectarian conflict. Their very existence could provoke backlash from groups with conflicting agendas – effectively putting the very populations that SOS Chrétiens d’Orient purports to help in harm’s way. These entities should be considered as uncivil conflict actors because their ultimate goal isn’t to bring about the resolution of the conflict, but to support undemocratic factions.

Much ink has been spilled dispelling largely Russian state-sponsored media[40] driven conspiracy theories surrounding the legitimacy of local civil society initiatives, but few articles explain the strategic interest the regime has in pursuing these campaigns : as we’ve seen with the recent Trump presidential campaign, disseminating distrust and confusion lead ordinary citizens to yearn for authoritarian leadership.

Conclusion

The Assad regime’s, and more recently the warlords’ and smugglers’[41] stranglehold on large western NGO’s combined with the fact that smaller CSOs have to compete with these international humanitarian actors[42] in an ever more confusing landscape has contributed to eroding the trust the Syrian people have in the international community[43]. For peacebuilding to be fruitful, confidence between the parties needs to be reestablished and it is therefore crucial to push past the information warfare and massively support these local CSOs even if identification poses a challenge. As Oula Ramadan of the Badael Foundation points out : “In the face of social and political forces like militarization, violence, and the Assad regime, our philosophy is that alternatives to these things do exist, and we just need to look and be creative in finding them.[44] Providing some clarity in the fog of war, organisations such as Citizens for Syrian[45] are actively mapping the different initiatives which have sprung up during the six year long war.

The Libyan conflict and its (non)resolution should have yielded meaningful take-aways including the many missed opportunities in supporting new civil society which materialised during the conflict. In 2012 UNCT[46] promised CSOs “political space for their engagement in the reform and development processes”, but with escalation of conflict in the post-election period, this space was more readily attributed to conflict actors. As we are witnessing now, relying exclusively on outreach programs piloted by UNSMIL[47] and foregoing the granular resilience to politisation that independant local CSOs build, contributed in kicking the can of conflict and violent extremism further down the road. This may now provide Russia with yet another opportunity to exploit conflict (and immigration flows) to influence the European Union’s countries elections, whilst posturing as a global conflict manager.[48]

The EU has been shaken to its core by structural insecurity, in part due to the military, economic and humanitarian fallout of the Syrian conflict. In 2017, at-risk elections will be held in France, the Netherlands and Germany. Proof that these elections are already directly impacted by the power dynamics of the conflict and its resolution, positions of candidates on Syria and Russia are key campaign issues. The election outcomes will in turn affect the future of Syria and its region. Although the European Union, through various funding mechanisms is the largest single contributor towardsSyrian relief and development, the EU’s role in piloting the political process is perceived as marginal at best. Under the previous circumstances of international cooperation, leading from behind was a viable option. Now faced with increasing Russian aggression and American nationalism, the European Union needs to forge a strategy which fathoms in the parameters of hybrid warfare in the civil society landscape – not by engaging in a similarly subversive offensive which would only weaponise CSOs further, creating more chaos and sustaining the conflict – but by developing a distributed system of aid delivery which preserves the neutrality and independence of civil society. Integrating such a tool into the EEAS Global Strategy might help the European Union strike the right balance between guaranteeing the Syrian people ownership of the peace process, and flexing its own diplomatic strength.

Stephanie Lamy, Félix Blanc

February 2017

www.danaides.org


[2] International Meeting on Syrian Settlement January 2017

[6] (to a lesser degree because of the competition with international organisations)https://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/MEB93.pdf

[8] “Civil” and “uncivil” conflict actors definition loosely based on “Conflict society: understanding the role of civil society in conflict” – Raffaele Marchetti and Nathalie Tocci (see (3))

[25] Herfried Münkler, The New Wars, Polity, 2005, p.248

[28] Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – or War. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder/London, 1999

[33] Religion, Religious Organisations and Development: Scrutinising religious perceptions and organisations – Carole Rakodi 2016

 

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