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Russian, Turkish and Syrian Seminar in Saint-Petersburg

On January 21-22, an international seminar «The Syrian and Middle East Regional Order: Russian, Syrian and Turkish Perspectives» was held in Saint-Petersburg, where Russian, Turkish and Syrian experts in Middle East took part. The event was organized by Laboratory for Monitoring risks of social and political destabilization (HSE), Center of Asian and African Studies (HSE SPB), Department of Asian and African Studies of (HSE SPB), in collaboration with two leading Middle Eastern research centers - OMRAN Center for Strategic Studies (Istanbul) и Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) (Ankara). After the last year’s meeting in Istanbul, this was the second meeting of experts from three countries in such format.

One of the key topics of the discussion was such part of Syrian crisis phenomena as The Local Councils, which are a modernized form of local coordination committees as primary opposition structures, that had appeared during the civil conflict. The Local Councils, which although are not political structures but still hold political capacity, are hoped to help to overcome crisis displays in Syria. Thus, these Councils are a summing component of work on such directions as preservation of government institutions, counter-terrorism and implementation of stabilization programs. According to the speakers, The Local Councils can facilitate to restore order and stability by supporting public institutes, interaction with non-governmental organizations, and reaching national and sub-national agreements.

With regard to safety in the region, an overview of Syrian security services’ objectives, structure and its’ dependence on existing regime was introduced. Representatives of OMRAN and ORSAN consider violations committed by security services as systematic and deeply rooted both in culture and practice. At the same time, several levels of such violations are distinguished: social, economic and political. Within each of them there are several factors aggravating the situation, in particular absence of unified plan of security services’ functioning in every sphere, including budget planning and establishing a dialogue with the civil sector; legalization of repressions; intentional absence of coordination between different agencies; abuse of authority and spreading of corruption.

When looking at the modern map of Syria, role of The Local Councils becomes even more obvious. In this case, it could be easily noticed that it is full of impressive number of enclaves, that being situated, let’s say, at the area occupied by the governmental forces, still are controlled by The Local Councils, which have been showing high level of resistance during all six years of the conflict. Need in their integration into political process of the post-conflict Syria is one of the most difficult questions now. That makes Lebanon scenario of conflict resolution regarding Syria increasingly relevant.

Lebanon experience also became one of the examples during the discussion on models of way out of the social and political instability. Thus, post-crisis development of the country has chosen the path of forming a consociational democracy, which in terms of Arend Lijphart assumes constitutional and normative processing of political consensus in complex societies.

Besides Lebanon scenario there also were comparisons with other models of post-crisis development, in particular, with the Algerian one. Algerian government succeeded in splitting radicals and transferring struggle into parliamentary scope. Moreover, the regime had compromised the Islamists by providing them with several pretty attractive government posts. Syrian regime, however, refused to consider armed groups, especially those acting under religious slogans, as opposition, and didn’t wish to discuss questions of peaceful resolution with them. For example, this included the Society of the Muslim Brothers, one of the important sides of the conflict.

The prospect of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups in Syria using an example of Chechnya’s experience and justice of the transitional period was also analyzed. Thus, it was noted that the reintegration process in Chechnya have become possible thanks to the fact that the ex-combatant and oppositional leaders occupied key positions in political and law enforcement agencies, loyalty to the leadership was reached in exchange for social benefits, the new social contract, based on bought loyalty and trust, was formed. And, of course, one of the key roles in this case was the fact that Moscow has been funding more than 90% of the republic’s budget. As for Syria, the processes of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration may encounter some difficulties related to the large number of non-homogeneous groups, the lack of clear understanding of what body will carry out the program, as well as to the question of the inclusion of recognized terrorist groups in these processes.

Another important aspect discussed during the seminar was about national minorities in countries with stable statehood, as well as in failed states. As a load-bearing structure of democratic ideas were considered small socio-cultural groups or minorities, defined as those not by the number of members of this or that group, but by their deviation from what “normal” is (no matter how this concept is interpreted). If the country is experiencing collapse of the political regime, then successful work aimed at uniting minorities can become a tool for coming out from the crisis, and, on the other hand, the consolidation of social and cultural groups based on oppositional ideas can lead to a regime change. In line with such considerations in relation to Syria, it was found that the united front of Western countries and Russia may emerge precisely on the basis of the idea of minorities protection (of Christians and other religious and ethnic groups) in the Middle East as a whole, on the condition of providing them with international support.

Potential impact of raising the question about fate of Christians and other minorities at this stage was also noted during the meeting, since it is this agenda that can unite the parties to the conflict. The fate of Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East should become a subject of discussion and agreement between rival Islamic sides, which will allow to set a precedent and move on to solving conflicts within the Islamic community.

One of the conclusions of the discussion was the point that in any case reaching agreements implies a significant change of power in Syria, and its division between different national, religious and political groups. This is the approach that can save the country from further division and conflict. Any attempt to put pressure on one side can immediately call the resuscitation of old problems and the return of confrontation. Panelists also mentioned that there is no universal formula for solving the conflict in Syria, and in each province all local national and religious peculiarities must be taken into account. Otherwise, coordinating mechanisms will not work.