2nd October 2012
“Only the Europeans can mediate Syria”
Syrian legal expert Naseef Naeem says there is little chance of a successful ceasefire in Syria, as the conflict’s religious nature blocks easy solutions. Only Europe can successfully negotiate a deal, he says.
DW: Mr Naeem, the violence in Syria continues to escalate. Why is it proving so difficult to stop the violence?
Naseef Naeem: The problem is that once both sides took up weapons, they could no longer put them aside. As soon as one side stops fighting, they’ll be killed by the other. The religious dimension of the conflict plays a role here. The Alawis are being rounded up and collectively incarcerated by the insurgency. They can’t expect to have a future in Syria once the war is over. That leaves all parties with only one choice – to fight for all or nothing.
You have suggested Europe should act as mediator. What makes the Europeans well-suited to the role?
If the Europeans manage to speak with a single voice, and take a position different from that of China and Russia on the one hand and the USA on the other, then they could potentially find a successful path. It is part of the diplomatic art to put oneself between the two parties and to work from an independent, impartial position. But at the moment everyone is speculating about the time after Assad – the new political and economic order, the relationships between the denominations. That’s all fine and necessary, but at this point the dialogue needs to be about something else – it needs to be about stopping the slaughter. This civil war cannot be won militarily. That’s why I’m banking on the Europeans. They are the only ones who can still make a difference. Europe has no direct interests that it needs to assert. Europe’s only interest is in ending the bloodshed. That makes Europe impartial and credible.
Even so, the Europeans need a little luck in this undertaking, mainly because of the aforementioned religious dimension of the war. What is the root of that?
Syrian society is ethnically, culturally and religiously very diverse. You can’t see it as a unified entity at all. Syria is made of people with very different backgrounds, and most Syrians define themselves principally by their religion. By that token, Syria’s personal status laws are founded on religious and ethnic categories. State norms correspond to this diversity and foster it in the legal sphere. That is also reflected in the country’s politics.
You mention Syrian personal status laws. How are they structured?
There are different versions of them. Every Christian church in Syria has its own – Orthodox and Catholic alike. And the Muslims also have their own, based on Islamic law. The government enacts the various laws in close cooperation with the religious communities. That’s why Syrians feel responsible to their religious community – or in the case of the Kurds, their ethnic community – first and foremost. Their loyalty to the state is subordinate to that.
Many observers report that the uprising against the Assad regime is above religion, but you reject that. Why?
At the start of the war, a proportion of Syrians – regardless of their religion – said they wanted regime change. Even in the media, this was reported as an uprising that spanned religions. Other Syrians contradicted this, saying it was a purely Sunni movement. Representatives of Christians and other minorities declared they wanted nothing to do with it. That may have been the case at first. But now this uprising has taken on a religious character, whether we accept that or not.
What do you base this thesis on?
Take the city of Homs, which is divided into various religious sectors. The Christians have largely left the city and taken refuge in surrounding Christian villages. In the city itself the Alawite areas are relatively peaceful. But the districts where the Sunnis live are fiercely contested. Speaking to Syrians on the ground, you keep hearing – society has been divided along religious lines.
How do you explain this strong religious logic?
The problem is that in Syria there are no communities other than the religious and the ethnic. Take the Baath Party – its important, decision-making committees are always divided into certain proportions. In a 10-man council there are generally six Sunnis, two Alawis, and two Christians. That means that the state and its institutions, and the political landscape itself, are always based on religious groupings. Of course the current regime, like all the regimes before it, exploits this to maintain its hold on power. But these divisions reach much farther back historically – it was created by the French mandate. The French chose the Alawis for the military, the Sunnis for the economy, and the Christians for the administration. This partitioning has solidified over time. This is also how Hafez Assad (Bashar Assad’s father and former president – the ed.) came to power in 1970. It was a similar process in Iraq. These things happen in artificially-created states.
Naseef Naeem is a constitutional lawyer who has previously worked in Damascus. He now teaches at the University of Göttingen, Germany. He belongs to Syria’s Christian minority.