Nikolaos van Dam: Even with an agreement, it may take generations to ‘normalise’ Syria

August 27, 2017
Dutch diplomat Nikolaos van Dam. (Gareth Smyth)

Dutch diplomat Nikolaos van Dam attended a wedding in Damascus in September 2010 with no sense of the quiet before the storm or that five years later he would be the Netherlands’ special envoy exploring contacts with a Syrian opposition locked in violent conflict with President Bashar Assad.
Van Dam had, however, high­lighted the sectarian aspects of Ba’athist rule in his 1979 book “The Struggle for Power in Syria” and wrote, in the 1980 second edition, of the “danger of [Syria] being drawn into the throes of civil war.” Van Dam’s new book, “Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria,” traces the roots of violence, analy­ses the intricacies of the war and outlines potential outcomes.
Van Dam agreed his book makes no bones as to the sectarianism un­derlying Ba’athist rule, which from seizing power in 1966 undermined its ideals of equality. “It’s like being caught in a net,” he said. “They might like to extend but to move beyond the Allawi makes them feel insecure.”
Van Dam was also scathing about Western policy. “Many countries took sides from the beginning and blocked the possibility they could mediate,” he said. “The French and Americans by the visits of their ambassadors to [rebel-controlled] Hama in 2011 chose the side of the opposition.”
Van Dam said the West’s ap­proach has been contradictory. “If you want to help the opposition, then you must help them win,” he said. However, the West’s insist­ence on Assad’s removal without real support for the rebels bred carnage.
“It’s immoral to stick to your principles when more people die because you can’t offer a solu­tion,” said van Dam. “I think it’s unique to say to a ruler: ‘We want a [negotiated] solution but you must leave and face trial’.”
Euphoric over the “Arab spring” and what van Dam called “unrealistic” expectations of “Western-style democracy,” the West underestimated Assad’s resilience. “They ignored the fact that this regime had almost half a century’s experience of how to stay in power, in the most ruthless man­ner,” he said.
Van Dam also criticised the Arab League, although he said he sees virtues in its 2012 initiative. “The Arab League should not have lost patience,” he said. “By freezing Syria’s membership, it lost contact. The first thing to help solve a prob­lem is communication.”
Such views made van Dam an unusual choice as Netherlands’ spe­cial envoy to Syria during 2015-16.
“When the minister asked me, he was aware I had published arti­cles and made speeches [critical of Western policy]. As envoy, I explained to the opposition the official policy and what I thought was realistic,” he said.
“I remember in Geneva a conver­sation between European envoys and the [Syrian opposition coalition High Negotiations Committee], when Mohammed Alloush of Jaysh al-Islam asked: ‘You have accepted UN Resolution 2254 [in 2015, calling for a political settlement], what will you do to implement it?’ This was a very good question.”
Van Dam used his fluent classical and colloquial Arabic to explain to the opposition that “whatever the [West’s] good intentions, military intervention had been excluded and the opposition would have only moral support.”
Whatever culpability lies elsewhere, “Destroying a Nation” exposes Syria’s political leaders on all sides. The book highlights the empty compromises offered: By the regime to accept opposition figures in government and by some rebels to accept transition regime figures “who do not have blood on their hands.”
“Destroying a Nation” outlines five possibilities: Continuing war; regime victory; opposition victory, perhaps with Islamist rule; Syria splitting into areas under different factions; political compromise.
Van Dam said a mixture of war and fragmentation is likely. “The opposition doesn’t want to scale down its expectations and the regime doesn’t either, as it feels threatened,” he said. “The future also depends on support the parties get from abroad. A senior Saudi once told me, ‘We have anti-Iranian feelings in our DNA.’ It’s not easy to find compromise.”
Van Dam argued the Americans may abandon the opposition if they sense a lost cause and will prob­ably ditch the Kurdish Democratic Union Party once the Islamic State (ISIS) is defeated. “I suspect the [Americans] are giving up the idea of toppling Assad,” he said. “They dislike the radical [Islamist] forces and war radicalises.”
Van Dam’s professional detach­ment in analysing Syria informs his writing and reflects diplomatic experience — including five ambas­sadorial posts — in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, Turkey, In­donesia and Germany. His evident love for Syria stretches back to his first visit in 1964.
“Even with an agreement, it may take generations to ‘normalise’ Syria. The social fabric has been so damaged, millions are trauma­tised. The war economy has put embezzlement and corruption on a far bigger scale. Perhaps 300,000 young people have been indoctri­nated in ISIS schools and it’s easier to indoctrinate someone than to clear his brain.”