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Opinion: On Syria and Switzerland | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A night view taken on January 21, 2014, shows the landmark of Chateau de Chillon castle on an island in Lake Geneva and the city of Montreux, which hosts the Geneva II peace conference. (Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann)

Over the past few days, Switzerland has played host to political negotiations between the Damascus regime and the Syrian opposition—negotiations which observers almost unanimously agree are practically impossible.

These negotiations, known as “Geneva II,” since they are based on the “Geneva I” Communiqué issued in June 2012, opened in the Swiss resort of Montreux for one day before moving on to the other bank of Lake Geneva.

Over the past few days, I would assume the Syrian government’s delegation has become much more familiar with Switzerland.

The delegation will have witnessed an internationally renowned model of civilized coexistence, national unity based on diversity, and an advanced political system based on respect for human rights and the devolution of power. They must also have noticed Switzerland’s astonishing economic success story, one made more impressive by the country’s lack of natural resources—no gold, diamonds, or oil to speak of. It is the rational and industrious people that transformed this mountainous, land-locked country into one of the world’s richest, most advanced industrial economies, one competing efficiently with other global economies thanks not to cheap labor, but to the excellent quality of its products and services.

Like Syria, Switzerland is a diverse country, but unlike Syria, it has understood the principles of ruling a diverse society. Following disputes and conflicts among their linguistic, ethnic and religious factions, the Swiss regions worked out a pioneering and successful formula for a federal system. All four of the languages spoken in the country—German, French, Italian and Romansh—are recognized in the constitution. Switzerland has dealt with all of its groups in a fair and just way despite German speakers making up more than half of its population. Thanks to the absence of the concept of nationalism—in its strictest sense—the people of the Swiss Confederation can be justly proud of their common identity, one which overcomes all their differences. Indeed, in light of this common identity, the Swiss people feel an absolute loyalty to their country—which is surrounded by the much larger countries that share its languages and cultural background: Germany, France and Italy. The successful experience of federal democratic rule based on rotating power among the members of an elected seven-member Federal Council has made it possible for justice to prevail in this country and for people to feel confident in themselves, their political system, and their ability to succeed and stand out without resorting to more nefarious means.

In Syria, however, as the current situation demonstrates, we are talking about a totally different experiment. Since it gained independence in 1943, Syria has failed to build a political system or regime that enjoyed the trust of its citizens. With the exception of a brief period during the 1950s which saw democracy bloom in the country, Syria has been moving away from good governance.

Its “Arab nationalist” identity, pushed even further by the ultra-nationalistic discourse of the Ba’ath Party, failed to strengthen Syria’s Arab relations or reassure its non-Arab minorities. Over the four decades of Ba’athist rule in Syria and Iraq, relations between these two countries, separated by artificial borders, have been mostly antagonistic. With the passage of time, this secular, pan-Arab party that claimed to aspire to unify Arabs from the ocean to the Gulf, even including Somalia and Eretria, became dominated by sectarian minorities, or rather by family dictatorships, establishing police states characterized by violence, oppression and corruption. Traditional rural–urban conflicts then evolved into ones based on sectarian and ethnic lines, for which today Syria is paying a heavy price.

Furthermore, the disruption of democracy through military coups that started in 1949 coincided with politicians adopting grandiose but futile slogans. As time passed, these slogans proved empty and it became apparent that the rulers perhaps did not truly mean what they were saying. Even when they were sincere, these leaders were ultimately unable to implement their vision. Three major slogans have been coined since 1943, but which only gained following the 1948 Palestinian Nakba: Pan-Arabism aiming at Arab unity, the liberation of Palestine, and socialism aimed at ending the exploitation of the poor and the peasantry by both urban capitalism and rural feudalism.

What has all this led to?

On the level of pan-Arabism—a concept aimed at doing away with the Sykes-Picot Agreement—the mistakes committed by the Syrian regime are now threatening the very unity of the Syrian state itself. The allegedly secular and Arabist Syrian regime is now an appendage of Iran, a religious and non-Arab regional power.

As for liberating Palestine, the regime has, in its relationship with Israel regarding the Golan Heights, veered between resistance and peace. In fact, it was Syria that finished off the Palestinian resistance organizations in Lebanon, eventually starving Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus.

And when it comes to socialism and justice for the destitute, and for the workers and farmers, the past few decades have seen the emergence and expansion in Syria of a parasite mafia-like economic class under the protection of the police state and the Assad family mafia.

The bitter political experience represented by the current Syrian regime, which has betrayed its people and their dreams, and damaged the security of its neighbors, has now brought Syria to the brink of the abyss.

Historically, Syria was known as a land of culture, civilization and religions. The birthplace of three Roman emperors and home to the world’s most ancient cities, Aleppo and Damascus, it was home to international sources of trade, industry, architecture, music and literature. However, this same country is today teetering on the brink of partition and fragmentation.

While Switzerland is a unified state comprised of 26 cantons, Syria has seen a quarter of a million of its population killed and more than 10 million others internally and externally displaced.