Staffan De Mistura, “liberated zones”, and winning the peace in Syria

In a recent UN Humanitarian Task Force update, Staffan De Mistura solemnly claimed that the war in Syria was nearly over. The advance to take Deir ez-Zor and what he claimed was the impending defeat of Daesh in Raqqa meant that it was increasingly likely that international actors’ agendas were completed in the country. To use Trump’s language, the “destruction” of ISIS was complete, and for De Mistura and the UN this signified the transformation of those key areas into “liberated zones”.

It is worth looking at the use of the term “liberated zone” in the 21st century Middle Eastern context, and how it is used sparingly and mostly in reference to anti-Islamist activity. By criticising the usage, I do not suggest that removing Islamic extremist militia groups from the region isn’t a priority, but it is to question the terminology used when designating an area as liberated/free particularly when comparing citizens’ process of political struggle occurring in other Syrian cities. It is no surprise that the subjectivity of labelling a region as liberated and the language used, represents a wider political agenda for the region as a whole. This designation of the “liberated zone” is used frequently in relation to Daesh-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq (see the most recent liberation of Mosul), but throughout the history of the conflict in Syria in particular, “liberation” has rarely been used by international actors to describe the state of affairs in areas such as Zabadani (Damascus’ suburbs) who have at least at one point managed to sustain an autonomous and independent municipality, governed through democratic elections.

Although we complain of the international community being all words and no action, their use of language is still important and effects the political alliances and potentialities of holding actors to account. Yes, these democratically governed areas would negotiate with opposition forces that tend to the religious extremities, as well as regime forces, especially when it came to securing food and resources for their people, but they were governing themselves outside of authoritarian repression (both Ba’athist and Islamist). When we are talking about liberated zones what do we actually mean? A temporary/faux-liberation that enables the previous Syrian socio-political structures of intimidation and coercion to prevail?

Defining geographies of liberation in the Syrian Civil War has always been subjective, but through the particular influence of the Syrian regime and its international allies, the conflict was securitised in such a way that turned genuine political opposition into a homogenised group deemed as harbingers of terrorism. This securitisation of the opposition (if one can refer to them in such a monolithic block) has affected the built environment of the country, leading to urban development plans (marketed as forms of liberation) that are designed to destroy political resistance and thus target certain demographics in the country (majority working-class Sunni populations found in areas witnessing demolition), with the most visceral of those avenues of liberation being the physical destruction of human life. The use of polarising and securitising language by the internal status-quo is no surprise considering they wish to remain in power. But we now also see a resignation from the international community in finding solutions to the conflict that do not continue to centre the Assad regime, the Astana Peace Talks are an example of this. The concept of de-escalation has been central to the Astana Peace Talks, but again what are the consequences of de-escalation, what does the term actually mean? What they are now saying is that as the agenda of defeating Islamic extremism in the region is coming to an end, violence and political resistance must tone down for the sake of non-violent peace processes (that have a historic tendency to fall flat on their face in the Middle East, see the Middle East Peace Process for further details).

“What we now need to focus on is peace” De Mistura explained, as if war and peace are not intertwined, and as if the Syrian regime was not necessary for the perpetuation of Islamic extremism in the region that primarily morphed into Daesh. War and peace, the Syrian regime and Daesh do not exist in separate spheres, they are not mutually exclusive. The greater war against the Assad machine will not end through peace talks that continue to legitimise the regime’s position in the country in order to achieve part-time liberation. De Mistura’s speech fell into the same tired rhetoric of political processes needing to occur between the regime and “the opposition”. After seven years of war, and many years before that consisting of the Damascus Spring and shallow negotiations between the regime and Syrian (mostly secular) civil society, what are the chances of De Mistura’s winning the peace?

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