Monthly Archives: February 2013

Crunch time for Syria

The statement earlier this month by the leader of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib that he was ready to negotiate a settlement with members of the Assad government, and the subsequent statement of Prime Minister al-Halqi expressing a similar will from the government side gave reason for hope. However, the now apparent inability of the National Coalition to unite in support of its leader’s statement, in a backdrop of new attacks on Aleppo, as well as on government and opposition installations in Damascus and elsewhere, throw the possibility of any direct peace talks back into doubt. That should not be allowed to happen. Instead, those with any degree of leverage with the Syrian government and the opposition should make clear that the Syrian parties cannot expect any support for their respective interests unless they sit down and talk to each other in earnest.

One positive thing that became evident during the short-lived spell of hope was that there can be broad international support for talks between the opposition and the government. The Russian Foreign Minister’s welcoming of Mr. Al-Khatib’s openness to dialogue should be reciprocated by those closer to the opposition, including the US, UK and France. There is always room for political maneuvering and relative positioning but this should be kept within limits, and should be firmly placed within a framework of talks between the Syrian parties themselves.

Iraq, in particular, should be kept in mind in all this, and the waste of lives and treasure that took place there should be avoided in Syria. In the event of a settlement, or while moving towards one, there should be no blanket demonization and persecution of Baath Party rank-and-file members, civil servants and other professionals. Politics excluded, Syria has been functioning better than many countries in the region in terms of public services and social cohesion, taking also into account that it is not particularly endowed in natural resources like most of its Arab neighbours are. A smooth transition would engage decent elements of the state machinery and would put emphasis on the continuity of public services and the state, with positive openings to those thus far excluded, rather than negative purges and summary replacements.

There are well-based allegations of war crimes committed by the Assad government, as well as by opposition forces. All these allegations should be duly investigated as soon as the situation on the ground allows it, and the culprits should be brought to justice, irrespective of who may have been patronizing them during the conflict. There should be no one-sided victors’ justice, if the situation in Syria is to stabilize for the long term, but responsibilities should be handed down impartially to those to whom they belong.

Responsibility lies with all sides, inside and outside Syria. Crunch time should not be allowed to drift any further, for the sake of the suffering Syrian population more than anything else.

Georgios Kostakos
Brussels, 24 February 2013

Post-Platonic Greece

A couple of weeks ago it was reported in the Greek press that a very old olive tree, reputed to have survived since the times of Plato some 2400 years ago, had been cut for firewood by a desperate Athenian who could not afford the high heating oil price. It was a very sad piece of news, at first reading at least. It showed how low Greece and its citizens had fallen, at mere survival mode, sacrificing a living monument for the sole purpose of temporarily satisfying a mundane need. It felt like the end of Greek civilization, or rather of any connection that modern Greeks had with the glorified Greeks of ancient times. And was a sign of the decline, shortsightedness and destructive self-indulgence of modern Greeks.

At second reading, though, this may not have been as tragic an incident, after all. No, in no way am I suggesting that the cultural treasures of Hellenic civilization be sacrificed to temporarily relieve the many problems experienced by modern Greeks. That would be utterly detrimental to a very important part of humanity’s heritage and would do no justice to Greeks and non-Greeks alike. Moreover, it would not be sustainable over the medium- and long-run, living off what is left of ancient glories that is. What is not so bad, though, is the symbolism that this act conveys.

The cutting of the umbilical cord to the glorious antiquity may not be such a bad thing after all. It is this connection and its incessant reminder in schools and the society at large that has been a major spoiling factor for today’s Greeks. It is as if you had a billionaire for a father, or a genius, or both. Why should you work, why should you plan and why should you worry? Moreover, no matter what you did, you would not manage to measure up to those bigger-than-life ancestors, so why even try? No, you could live off the inheritance, the value of which everybody recognized, so they better pay for it, and pay you, the legitimate heir and DNA carrier.

But now that the connection is symbolically gone, literally cut up into small pieces that can fit into a stove or a fireplace, today’s Greek may realize that he or she is now responsible for his own acts and future, for better or worse. Once the warmth of the burning wood is gone, today’s Greek may realize that s/he is left out in the cold and has to fend for him/herself. And scary as this may at first be, it can have an awakening effect and be empowering at the same time. It may wake up the creativity and responsibility, which are somewhere in there, sleeping the sleep of the pampered heir, but occasionally still showing themselves in individual acts of greatness, often by Greeks who have left the homeland and have taken their destiny in their hands. Because Greeks can operate well in an environment that has rules and demands from them, as well as rewards. But they dose off and short-circuit themselves and each other when they are under the influence of glories past.

So, may you go to a better place and rejoin Plato, ancient olive tree. Thank you for ushering Greece with your symbolic sacrifice to its post-Platonic era, and may this be another glorious time of creativity and humanism indeed.

Georgios Kostakos
On the road, 4 February 2013