Can the Olympics save Syria?
What hope is there for the citizens of Syria? Every day brings news of new atrocities, with the lines of legitimacy increasingly blurred as the state and non-state hydras battle in a cycle of attacks, reprisals, counter-attacks and counter-reprisals. Like the many-headed mythical serpent, which re-grew two heads for every one severed, the regime in Syria appear to be proliferating murder, mutilation and misery for the civilian population at an exponential rate. Can then another ancient Greek tradition, that of the Olympic Truce, offer some hope for the millions affected by conflict?
Such a faith may appear at best misguided, at worst woefully optimistic, yet it seems like little else is fairing any better. The West, which spent much of the last year welcoming the tide of Arab uprisings, now appears emasculated by both a fear of opening up fronts that cannot be resourced and a hangover from the Libya campaign which has made future use of the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine more challenging to achieve. With anything but the most prosaic of Security Council actions being consistently blocked by Russia and China, the UN appears powerless to intervene in any meaningful way. The more palatable Annan Plan, backed by the Arab League, which initially offered some hope for a reduction in violence and the introduction of international observers, is being repeatedly put through the shredder with every new atrocity.
The concept of the Olympic Truce dates from ancient Greece, when warring city states ceased hostilities to allow the safe passage of athletes and spectators to the Games at Olympus. The tradition was revived in 1993 and an Olympic Truce Resolution has been passed by the UN General Assembly before every summer and winter games since. The current Truce resolution, proposed by the UK, has been signed by all 193 UN member states. Although largely symbolic, the Truce does offer the opportunity fordiplomatic space and, famously during the Lillehammer Games, for a ceasefire in Sarajevo, a previous Olympic host city, which allowed vital humanitarian aid to be delivered.
If the UK wishes to achieve a genuine peace legacy from the London Games, every opportunity must be taken to promote the Olympic Truce, and there can be no more pressing case for the victory of action over rhetoric than with Syria. It fell to Lord Bates, a tireless Olympic Truce campaigner, speaking in Parliament last week, to suggest a delegation of the UK (the currentOlympic Truce proposers), China (the previous Olympic Truce proposers), andRussia (the next Olympic Truce proposers), be sent to Damascus, a co-sponsor of the current Olympic Truce, under the aegis of the UN and IOC. Such a delegation arriving, as Syria simultaneously sends its largest contingent of athletes in 30 years to a Games, could offer a renewed opportunity for dialogue and appeals for Assad to step down. It is clear that he will have to leave office and the Truce could be used to begin working out a peaceful next stage for the country.
But the UK could go further still. The diplomatic muscle housed in the Foreign and CommonwealthOffice, a mere flick of sand away from the beach volleyball courts, must have few rivals globally. Could not the gathering in London of national officials travelling with sporting delegations be harnessed for some diplomatic arm wrestling over Syria? The Head of the Syrian delegation, General Joumaa, who is a personal friend of President Assad, has at least been denied a visa by the UK government. But could approval for the travel of other Syrians not be made conditional on participation in political discussions that the UK could host during the Olympics, or the implementation of a ceasefire back home?
How will the world be able to watch, with any conscience, Danny Boyles’ vignettes of quintessential Britishness at the opening ceremony on Friday, when the regime in Damascus continues unabated with its acts of barbarism? Perhaps the tiniest grain ofcomfort can be drawn from the last summer Games. While acrobatics and pyrotechnics filled the Bird’s Nest four years ago, tanks rolled into South Ossetia as Russia and Georgia stood on the brink of full-scale war. Yet Natalia Paderina of Russia and Nino Salukvadze of Georgia, winning silver and bronze medals in the 10-meter air pistol competition, demonstrated that the Games can be a powerful vehicle for peace as they stood together on the winners’ podium hugging and kissing on the cheek.
It is around suchgrains of hope that pearls can grow and the UK government should now be using the opportunity of the Olympic Truce to take whatever small steps can be made towards helping find a solution to the bloodshed in Syria.
Phil Mulligan is Executive Director of the United Nations Association of the UKTagged in: General Joumaa, London 2012, Olympic Truce, olympics, President Assad, syria
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