A pattern of bloodshed

January 10, 2013

By Nishat Ahmed 

Syria’s continually deteriorating situation set the tone for January’s First Wednesday – the first panel debate of the year. The group, chaired by Paddy O’Connell of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, included Melissa Fleming, spokesperson of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); Ausama Monajed, the executive director the the London-based Strategic Research and Communication Centre; journalist and author, Patrick Seale and Jon Lee Anderson, foreign correspondent of the New Yorker.

As the UN now believes the uprising against the regime of President Basher al-Assad has cost the lives of at least 60,000 people, the panel discussed if 2013 will bring an end to the fighting and what form a resolution could take.

Monajed, also a member of the Syrian National Council, pointed toward the willingness of the international backers on both sides in the conflict – Iran and Russia supporting Assad’s regime and the West and other Middle Eastern countries favouring his removal – and how much they are willing to risk.

While Anderson said:

“The pattern is not good. I look with some optimism at the prisoner exchange reported today. It’s one of the first agreements of any sort that’s been reached between the two. But the pattern is one of more bloodshed.”

Fleming, outlining the humanitarian crisis, said:

“Around 3,000 people a day are crossing borders. The biggest number is in Lebanon, where they are not living in refugee camps but in host communities. The Lebanese government has decided not to go with an encampment policy. Other countries like Jordan and Turkey do have refugee camps. In Turkey the majority of refugees are living in 11 camps and in Jordan it’s one. But there are many Syrians who are living in regular communities and cities . . . for people who are not able to leave Syria and who are under fire it’s very desperate. We estimates there will be about a million refugees in June if the conflict continues.”

Seale argued that the historical repression of the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1960s and 70s was key to understanding the current political crisis of the Syrian regime. But Monajed disagreed, arguing that this is a popular uprising against a brutal dictatorship and is part of the wider Arab Spring, and very little to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Seale also described another dimension of the international alliances at play, with the so-called Axis of Resistance (Syria, Iran, Hizbullah) facing the US, prompted and pushed by Israel. He said:

“United States. . . want to bring down that whole axis, to over throw the Syrian regime, to isolate Iran, to clip its wings to prevent it intervening in Lebanon and with the Palestinian territories.”

While some in the panel were in favour of a negotiated settlement to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis, others disagreed, fearing that talking to President Assad would strengthen his position. The general consensus was that we still face a long protracted war of attrition in Syria.

Financially, the UNHCR needs $1.5 billion in the next six months and has heightened all operations to top emergency level. Fleming pointed to the human reason for ending the war:

“Today it snowed in Jordan, yesterday there was torrential freezing rain. Thirty-thousand people are sleeping in muddy tents and snow. People are being targeted as they flee . . . and 50% of the refugees are children. One needs to look at the people and see that as the reason to stop killing and to stop the conflict.”

Watch the full discussion here: