The road to better times for Syria will be long in a region where civil wars average 10 years and negotiated peace is rare, says Glenn Davidson, former Canadian ambassador to Syria.
Vice-admiral Glenn Davidson says that before the civil conflict that displaced millions of its residents, Syria was a police state run by a thoroughly corrupt and sometimes brutal regime, a relatively poor nation unblessed with the natural resources enjoyed by other regional powers, and frequently afflicted by the interventions of colonial powers and proximity to other nations in conflict.
Davidson, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Syria from 2008 to 2012, added that Syria is rich in historical and cultural significance, home to some of the most welcoming and generous people he has ever met, and a place that had received hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees since 1948 and as many as 1.5 million Iraqi refugees over the past two decades.
“They have been enormously generous, and I don’t think they’re often given credit for that,” he said in a presentation Monday night on the University of Alberta’s North Campus sponsored by the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies and the Canadian International Council.
Davidson, a senior naval officer in the Canadian Forces prior to his diplomatic career, drew on his experiences as ambassador to share personal insights on how the current situation in Syria came to be and what might happen next.
Though the war in Syria has been exacerbated by the funding and influence of foreign powers and, more recently, the influx of jihadists such as the Islamic State, Davidson said the conflict has its roots in a long history of political oppression and the Syrian government’s ruthless response to peaceful calls for greater democracy and civil rights during the Arab Spring of 2011. Davidson noted that, had Syrian president Bashar al-Assad heeded the public’s calls for a free election at the time, he probably would have won. Instead, he responded to public demonstrations with escalating violence.
“I put the fault for what has happened squarely at the feet of the Assad regime,” Davidson said. “They have no other objective than to hold on to power.”
Factions both within and outside Syria are fuelling a chaotic crisis that has killed more than a quarter of a million people and displaced seven million more. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, via Creative Commons licence)
And though he feels Assad is to blame for a needlessly heavy-handed response to dissent, he also notes that the influence of regional actors and other major powers in funding and arming the regime and opposing factions has fuelled the chaos that has killed more than a quarter of a million people, displaced seven million people internally and caused the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Davidson said without the support of Russia and Iran, Assad would have run out of resources to wage war long ago. Similarly, funding and arms from countries like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations have enabled opposition forces to keep fighting.
“The fighting will not stop until the sponsors want it to stop,” he said.
“Take ISIS out of the equation and there still won’t be peace in Syria.” —Glenn Davidson
The presence of ISIS and other jihadists certainly makes things much worse for Syrian citizens trapped in the midst of the fighting, but is a peripheral issue to the full-blown civil war now entering its fifth year, according to Davidson.
“Take ISIS out of the equation and there still won’t be peace in Syria.”
Davidson said the immediate prognosis for the country is not encouraging, noting that civil wars in the region tend to last 10 years on average and that negotiated peace in such conflicts is rare. In the meantime, aftershocks from the Arab Spring movement continue to resonate through other countries.
“This will not be the last major conflict in the region,” Davidson said. “There’s no history of democracy, but an appetite for it, and fatigue with suppression of civil and human rights. Something has been brewing a long time. Jordan is very worried. Saudi Arabia is a space to watch.”
With no reason to assume that players in the conflict want to or are able to achieve solutions, Davidson said it’s imperative for western countries to continue supporting the work of the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations in helping Syrian refugees, an endeavour in which Canada has shown distinction.
“Canada’s humanitarian response has been exemplary,” Davidson said. “It’s something we all should be deeply proud of.”