Peace in Syria will stop the boats


On the ABC's Lateline last week, Middle East commentator Robert Fisk praised Syria's pro-democracy protestors: 'Tens of thousands of people with great courage go onto the street, they're shot down, then the mourners come along to the funeral and the mourners are shot down.'

Syria is moving quickly towards civil war, and it is natural that we would want to support the side that appears to stand for democracy against the repressive regime. Accordingly the response of Western nations has been to condemn the administration of President Bashar Assad for the violent crackdown and to impose economic sanctions.

Assad has angrily rejected foreign intervention, and foreign minister Walid Muallem has insisted that 'no one outside can impose on us their point of view'.

While nothing can excuse the government's killing of at least 1500 civilians, Muallem could have a point when he complains that that 'not a single European leader has come to Syria to discuss what is going on'.

The international community looks to be siding with the rebels rather than negotiating with the government to help bring peace. This is despite the fact that – as in Libya – little is known about the rebels or the form of democracy they represent.

It is likely that most Syrians would prefer peace – or national unity – to a western-backed democratic revolution. An overthrow of the government by rebel forces would destroy the delicate balance that sustains unity in Syria and would be likely to disadvantage minority groups such as the country's Christian population.

Earlier this month the Jesuits of Syria issued a statement that outlined a vision of national unity. They argued that 'a truly national peace cannot be built if one part of the population is excluded in favour of the other part'.

The statement refers to aspects of democracy such as freedom of speech, but not democracy as an aspiration per se. It could be argued that national unity does not sit well with democracy if democracy represents the will of the majority in a way that leads to the neglect of minorities.

Obviously Christian groups are concerned about the threat to their own rights and welfare posed by regime change. The Orthodox Patriarchate issued a statement that specifically 'condemned the foreign interference in Syria, and asked the Syrian citizens to be united'.

While democratic principles promote human rights, democratic elections represent the will of the majority and, as such, tend to neglect minorities. Regime change often forces minorities to flee. Paradoxically minorities frequently do better in countries ruled by self-serving dictators. 

The Jesuit statement advocates dialogue rather than revolution. This approach is more frustrating for Western countries, who prefer a quick transfer of power, especially if the rebels call themselves democratic. As the statement says, 'dialogue is not an easy matter for it presupposes trust on one side towards the other and listening to what the other has to say'.

Minority groups cannot be allowed to become collatoral damage in democratic revolutions. It is also in the interests of the international community for peace to be given priority over democracy. National unity is a greater prize in countries like Syria that are made up of many ethnic and religious groups. Where majorities prevail over minorities, the minorities are forced to live in subjugation, or flee the country. As such they become part of the international 'refugee problem'.

Western nations need to focus their energies on promoting human rights in countries like Syria in a way that is mindful of the need to preserve national unity. Australia's political leaders are selling the idea that building offshore detention centres is the best way to 'stop the boats'. But engaging in diplomacy that fosters national unity in countries such as Syria will get much closer to the root of the real refugee problem.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. Follow him on Twitter.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, democratic revolutions, middle east, libya, Robert Fisk, lateline, Bashar Assad



submit a comment

Existing comments

Michael: You rightly observe that minorities generally fare better in countries ruled by dictators. I think this has been much of Syria's experience. If one does a check of that country's population breakdown it seems clear that Syria is a nation of minorities in a broad sense. Islam is by no means coherently monolithic and there is a wide spectrum of other groups including sizable Christian groups.Generally speaking national unity has been prized above all because Syrians recognise the fact that the minorities fundamentally need one another for national existence and functionality, The leaders of modern Syria, the Assad clan, are members of a minority Muslim syncretist group called the Alawites. Their affinity is with Shia Islam which is far more structured and has more recognised religious authorities than those in the Sunni Tradition. There is a sizable Alawite group in Turkey (Alevite) and Lebanon. From what I have been able to find out is that the movers against the pro-democracy reformers are Alawite tribal relatives of Bashar Assad and not the President himself. These are the people who have most to lose politically and economically if the pro-reform is successful. Realistically, I think Syrians should look to a negotiated preservation of national unity first and work towards liberal democracy later on.

David Timbs | 27 June 2011  

It is sad that educated people could support murderers and torturers like Assad. The brutal Assad regime is sowing fear amidst Syria's minorities to try and thwart the move toward democratic representation, civil liberties, and government accountability. Its claim that a government drawn from the country's Sunni majority, which forms about 80% of the population (Arabs and Kurds), would endanger minorities is a farce. It is simply baseless. Sunnis in Syria, in their overwhelming majority, have never been violent or anti-minorities. When the Sunnis led Syria half a century ago, they elected a Christian, Faris Al Khouri, to be their prime minister for many many years. The Assad family run Syria like a ranch they own and dispose of its national resources to their cronies and thugs. They've turned once-prosperous Syria into a pariah state, impoverished and supporting terrorists. They are hypocritical sectarianists: look at who they allied themselves with over the past decades: Fellow Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. Furthermore, the opposition to Assad comes from all sects and ethnicities. For years many Christians in Syria have been leading the movement toward democracy, for example the heroic Michelle Kilo who just spent several years in prison. Here is one example of what the regime does to Christians and to all other Syrians: "But yesterday I visited a Christian friend who was attacked leaving a mosque by policemen. They asked him why a Christian was attending a mosque. He answered that his politics wasn't about Christian or Sunni. They cracked his head open. Now he can't walk." (from Irish Independent:

Fennec Fox | 27 June 2011  

They cannot write the opposite supporting the uprising.

AZURE | 01 July 2011  

Similar Articles

The neo-liberal face of the new Greens

  • Matthew Holloway
  • 01 July 2011

The current narrative about the ALP says the party losing its soul and ultimately turning its back on those Australians it is meant to represent. The Tasmanian experience suggests the same might be said for the Greens in the Federal Parliament, who assume the balance of power in the Senate today.


Ethical demands of a regional solution

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 30 June 2011

Even if the Malaysian government guaranteed the security, sustenance and education of the asylum seekers, the human dignity of those found to be refugees would still be significantly infringed. They would be unable to enter Malaysian society equally, and they have no possibility of prompt acceptance into another society.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up