Three years ago today, a massacre took place in the Syrian village of Taldou in Houla, in northern Syria. According to the U.N., 108 civilians were brutally murdered, including 34 women and 49 children. More even than the death toll, the clear sectarian nature of the killings sparked an international outcry. The U.N. and twelve other countries, including the UK, expelled Syrian diplomats. Three years on, as we look to Syria’s future, we mustn’t forget the shock and horror of that day, May 25, 2012.
Let’s keep firmly focused on the need to bring perpetrators of massacres like Houla to justice
But nor should we exaggerate the Houla massacre’s sectarian significance. Some will claim that sectarianism defines the Syrian conflict. Lest that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, let me offer three main reasons to fight this narrative and ensure it does not form part of Syria’s future. (For a sophisticated analysis of this, I recommend “Sectarianism is not part of the solution for Syria” by Carnegie Middle East Center’s Lina Khatib).
Wanting a better future for Syria
First, the vast majority of Syrians want their society and country to hold together. Many Syrians work tirelessly, many risking their lives, for a democratic, inclusive future for Syria. The inspirational White Helmets embody these principles in their willingness to save the lives of all Syrians, no matter their background. Any political settlement must reflect this, delivering to the people of Syria a transition that offers a perspective for the future that can be shared by all in Syria, giving a system, as in Lina’s words, that guarantees equitable political inclusion for all citizens regardless of to what sect they might affiliate themselves. This is why we continue to support and strengthen the moderate opposition who have a pluralistic, democratic vision for the future of their country.
Second, the regime and extremist groups have exploited sectarianism cynically for their own self-interest, not the interest of Syrians. This exploitation impacts Syria, the wider region and the world. The regime, under both Bashar and Hafez al-Assad, has a long history of exploiting sectarianism to build its power and ensure its own survival. Selling themselves as the ultimate protectors of minority sects and ethnic groups in Syria, the Assads deliberately preyed on fear to build a perverse and twisted mentality encouraging a sense of dependency on their brutal rule. Further, the Assad regime welcomes onto Syrian soil regional terrorist organizations to fight its battles; violent extremists such as ISIS recruit globally for their brutal campaign across Syria and Iraq, drawing on sectarian narratives to boost their appeal.
The job of the international community is to deny extremists – whether regime or terrorist – the right to use this narrative to speak on behalf of the Syrian majority. Before anyone accuses me of historic myopia, I’m familiar with how Great Powers have often manipulated sectarian identity in furtherance of imperial ambition, for example through manoeuvring in the 19th century to “protect minorities” in the Near East. Yet that was then, and this is now: there are a slew of international norms which the international community now must uphold.
Third, only an inclusive political settlement can guarantee long-term stability and peace. Syria has always been one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the Middle East. The future political settlement must embrace this, creating a genuinely democratic and pluralistic system which gives space to a range of political actors to take part in elections in fair competition. The need for an inclusive political settlement in Syria has never been more pressing. We will continue all efforts to achieve that, including by U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.
I don’t make a claim that the idea of a Syrian nation is deeply rooted, stretching back over the centuries. Some might say a sense of such a nation goes only back to 1918 and Amir Faysal’s attempt to establish an Arab government in Damascus, as the basis of an kingdom for the Arabs (and, NB, even then Syria wasn’t getting spoken of much). What I am claiming is that Syria as a nation makes the most sense. It stands in direct contrast to what Assad and the extremists stand for. Under a veneer of Arab nationalist-socialist Baathist doctrine, itself unedifying, the Assads exploited sectarian thinking to maintain their grip on power. Extremist groups like ISIS have gladly seized on the same, blunt sectarian tools. That has clearly brought Syria close to the point of ruin. In charting a way out of this tragedy, we should take care not to fall prey to the thinking advanced by both regime and terrorist extremists.
It is time to stand up for an idea of Syria, a proud nation at peace with itself and its neighbours, within its existing borders. Lina rightly makes the point that the conversation about all this must be “Syrian-directed.” But the international community has to play its part in support.
Final point. Let’s keep firmly focused on the need to bring perpetrators of massacres like Houla to justice. The UK has a long-standing commitment to accountability for atrocities committed in the Syrian conflict. This commitment will not falter. That is the message from the Houla massacre: the need for justice and accountability, not the perverted logic of sectarianism.