The recent bombing of Syrian chemical facilities was much less “bomb them back into the Stone Age,” a cliché that has a history in United States threats against Vietnam, Pakistan and ISIS. It was a “surgical strike,” coordinated with Great Britain and France, against three suspected chemical weapons sites. At the same time over 100 missiles were launched in retaliation for the supposed use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, Geneva citizens were voting for members of their government.
The Syrian crisis has gone on for over seven years. More than 400,000 people have died and millions have been displaced. There is no obvious solution to the continuing crisis. Mr. Assad is still head of the official government and seems to be consolidating his power. While rebels continue fighting and calls for Assad’s overthrow are often heard, there seems no immediate end to the violence. There is no alternative to Assad’s rule even though he remains a pariah in the Western world. After all, how can a leader who gasses his own people be recognized as the legitimate ruler of a country?
What makes the bombing so unusual was its limited means and objectives. Merely crippling weapons factories will not alter the situation on the ground. Assad has not been weakened. Russian and Iranian interference has not been threatened. United Nations efforts to arrive at a peaceful solution have not been advanced. The strikes were launched before official verification of the use of gas and without United Nations approval for the use of force. The United Nations Security Council is blocked; the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, remains powerless when dealing with issues of peace and security. Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, has trouble convening a meeting with all the relevant parties to the conflict.
Unlike disputes in areas such as Nagorno Kharabakh or Transniestria, the Syrian conflict is an active war among many actors within Syria as well as from outside. It is a complex, hybrid war that defies lines of clear demarcation between all the parties. The United States has given materiel aid to the Kurds but has also avoided stopping Turkey from attacking the Kurds. President Trump has said that he wishes to withdraw American troops from Syria, but President Macron announced that Trump had agreed to keep the United States militarily involved.
While the Syrian crisis continues, Geneva citizens were calmly voting for their local government. Far away from issues of war and peace and horrific scenes of death and destruction, ballots were routinely cast. There were some rumors of corruption, but far from the level of Joseph Kennedy’s efforts in Chicago in 1960 to have his son elected president. The Geneva electoral system worked, as it has in recent history. Individuals were chosen for the parliament; one Conseil d’Etat candidate had an absolute majority, others will be presented on a second round of voting in May. Political parties played their traditional role. Although there were obvious shifts – populist parties lost some percentage of the votes while Greens and center parties gained – there were no radical changes.
The Syrian peace process was mentioned in many of the analyses of the Saturday bombings. Mr. de Mistura’s efforts for a negotiated settlement have become associated with the city of Geneva. Indeed, historically, processes of negotiation and compromise in conflicts have taken place at the site of the first 3rd party negotiation after the American Civil War and the seat of the Red Cross.
The contrast between pictures of bombings coming out of Syria and the serenity of the democratic process of voting in Geneva reflect the dichotomy between zones of insecurity and zones of security. The relation between zones of security and zones of insecurity is complex. Those living in stable environments like Geneva are far removed from war zones. Deciding on who to vote for is far removed from life and death decisions such as if and when to leave one’s country. The newly elected Geneva government will make choices far removed from war and peace. For the moment, any Syrian transition for a peaceful transition from insecurity to security seems far away. Reconstruction is not on the current agenda. Democratic voting is not for tomorrow.
Bombs and ballots are two different worlds. Voting in peace-loving-Geneva cannot solve the problems in Syria. Even the historic role of the city’s convening settlements of disputes appears overwhelmed by the complexity of the Syrian crisis.