The recent violence in Gaza has managed to take the world’s attention away from the killing fields of Syria. Whilst the deaths of 60 protestors made front page news around the globe, it would take a lot more bloodshed or the use of particularly gruesome weapons for Syria to recapture the urgent concern of the planet.
Yet the post-Ghouta moment has not seen a pause in fighting as the Government in Damascus strives to ‘liberate’ further pockets of opposition-held areas in and around the capital, as well as moving against areas of Homs with evacuation deals that have seen thousands of Syrians relocated to the north of the country.
The north is steadily filling with evacuees from other cities and the UN has already warned that the battles in Homs, Ghouta or even Aleppo will pale in comparison with a fight to the end between advancing regime forces and opposition groups trapped inside the Turkish border wall.
Against that context hope seems in short supply, however this has not stopped Syrian civil society, humanitarian and peace activists continuing to try to save lives and protect those who have already endured so much over the past seven years.
“We Exist” is an advocacy alliance of over 25 Syrian civil society organisations that aims to provide a platform for strengthened engagement in life-saving humanitarian efforts, as well as engaging in long-term work promoting human rights, dignity, justice, accountability, and eventual peace and reconstruction in the country.
Their ambitions are large but so is the scale of the task they are up against. Instead of focusing on the largely irrelevant Western powers, the alliance has opted for the harder path of influencing Russian behaviour towards the conflict.
Sometimes it has been hard to see the daylight between Moscow and Damascus in terms of both the narrative and conduct of the conflict, so the task that “We Exist” is taking on is by no means an easy one.
Yet they have worked out a clever theory of change. We are roughly a month away from the start of the football World Cup, which will be hosted across a number of Russian cities. The eyes of billions of football fans will be on Russia during these weeks of sport and “We Exist” has made the simple, but powerful, call that Syrians should be allowed to watch the tournament in peace.
Football is characterised by both unbridled passion coupled with respect and observance of the game’s rules, whereas the conflict in Syria is defined by an apparent disregard to all norms and conventions of the modern day. However, with Russia keen to use their hosting as an attempt to promote a positive vision of the country’s development, infrastructure and hospitality, the last thing Moscow would want to see is headlines of injured children being carried out of smouldering ruins in Syria.
Pushing a positive, rather than solely critical, message to the Russians vis-a-vis their Syrian strategy is certainly worth a try, as the divisions at the UN Security Council have entrenched around the conflict and now appear unable to deliver any effective change.
Even if the Russians can be persuaded to de-escalate levels of violence during the World Cup, people may legitimately ask whether that is delaying the inevitable, or even allowing the Damascus regime to steadily build up and prepare its forces for future assaults. These all indeed might be the case, but what any pause in violence could also achieve is a window in which the conversation around Syria is not one primarily defined by bloodletting.
This could, from an optimist’s perspective, give any slender chance of dialogue, which has yet to spark effectively in Geneva, Vienna or Astana, to make some degree of progress if it is localised and minimal. This in turn could prove that dialogue can deliver and thus could build confidence to tackle harder and more intractable issues.
The cost of the conflict to date is so vast that it is hard to know when the cost-benefit analysis could tip decision making away from the zero-sum game that it has been characterised by for so long. Only recently statistics were released showing that the Syrian economy is one-fifth the size of its pre-conflict levels. Against all metrics, the country has paid a heavy, heavy price.
Any chance to stop more civilians dying in Syria should be supported and Syrian civil society has both the legitimacy and credibility to be listened to and respected. When the World Cup does kick off, let us hope that Syrians can watch it in peace.