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The World This Week: War in Syria is a Never-Ending Tragedy

The Syrian Civil War will continue because of protracted repression, rising sectarianism, the collapse of Iraq, extensive foreign interference and a tortured past.

On September 25, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations (UN), declared with much passion, “what Russia is sponsoring and doing [in Syria] is not counterterrorism; it is barbarism.” In the previous edition of The World This Week, this author was of the view that the Syrian ceasefire was unlikely to last. However, the author did not anticipate it would unravel so spectacularly.

Right from the outset, the fragile ceasefire was strained by fresh fighting. Accusations from all sides flew in thick and fast. On September 19, an attack on a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) warehouse and a UN aid convoy in Aleppo killed more than 20 civilians. The US held Russia responsible while the latter vehemently denied carrying out the attack.

The UN has called the attack on the convoy “sickening, savage and apparently deliberate.” Stephen O’Brien, the UN emergency relief coordinator, declared: “[I]f this callous attack is found to be a deliberate targeting of humanitarians, it would amount to a war crime.” Yet for all its outrage, the UN has suspended all aid convoys in Syria.

The conflict in Syria shows no sign of stopping. Rivers of blood keep flowing in this cursed land. Bombs, bullets, missiles, mortars, torture, execution, deprivation and starvation are now a feature of daily life. The suspension of aid will exacerbate the dire situation further. Such is the savagery of violence in Syria that people have little option but to flee for their lives.

Before civil war broke out, Syria’s population was 22 million. According to the UN, more than 250,000 have been killed—other estimates range between 400,000 and 470,000—and over a million have been injured since March 2011. Furthermore, around 4.8 million have fled across the Syrian border and another 6.5 million have moved to safer places within the country. This is the largest displacement crisis in the world.

The Syrian Civil War is a catastrophic conflict of confounding complexity. In the words of Robert Mardini, the Middle East director at the International Committee of the Red Cross, “hundreds of armed factions, countless front lines, with local, regional and international dimensions” and too many sponsors have unleashed a “tidal wave of suffering.”

So, what exactly is going on?

To understand the present, we have to delve into the past. The land that now comprises Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire until less than 100 years ago. Numerous communities such as Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Aramean-Syriac Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Maronite Christians, Assyrian Christians, Armenians, Kurds and Jews coexisted fairly peacefully despite mutual prejudice, jealousy and rivalry.

By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and power was shifting to the provinces. Then World War I came knocking and the Ottomans joined the losing side. Lawrence of Arabia stoked rebellion even as Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot proceeded to carve up the Ottoman Empire with aplomb. After the war, promises of independence were jettisoned for British and French rule. Out went light touch administration where local notables largely ran the show. In came centralization with power and patronage radiating from the capital of new states. Now, the elites who took charge of the capital would dominate and this set off a brutal chain of events that continues till today.

In a May 2015 edition of The World This Week, this author argued that the Middle East is going through its own version of the Thirty Years’ War. That war ended in the Treaty of Westphalia and created the modern state-based system for the entire world. Unnoticed by many, the current conflict in Syria and Iraq is chipping away at that very Westphalian system.

John Feffer, a foreign policy guru, recently observed at Fair Observer that “many states are held together by little more than surface tension.” He pointed out that ethnic nationalism and religious extremism are bringing fragmentation and chaos to the modern world. Feffer went to posit that Syria is a nightmare for states because whatever is tearing it apart might be contagious.

Feffer’s comment about surface tension certainly rings true for Syria. Once the French reluctantly returned home in 1946, little united the country except the will of its authoritarian rulers. One military coup followed another. In fact, Syrian leaders even attempted a merger with Egypt in 1958. They had been stung by failure against Israel in 1948 and feared the growing power of the communists. This was also a time when the stock of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was riding high. By standing up to the British and the French during the 1956 Suez Crisis, Nasser became a hero in the Arab world.

Needless to say, the union did not last. Nasser’s centralization of power and domination by Egyptians did not go down too well with Syrian officers. His banning of political parties destroyed pluralism in the country and made it even more vulnerable to military rule. Consequently, officers seized power in 1961 and dissolved the union. From now on, Syria would be a separate state.


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Another coup in March 1963 brought Baathists to power. They were emulating the February coup in Iraq through which fellow Baathists had seized control. Baathists believed in nationalism, socialism and pan-Arabism, but the reality of their rule turned out to be vastly different to their stated ideals.

The Baathists were not exactly a united lot. Like the Bolsheviks, they had their own internal rivalries. They were soon to get their own Joseph Stalin. The Stalin of Syria was Hafez al-Assad who captured power after a canny coup in 1970. Like his Soviet counterpart, he stuck to power and died in office. Unlike Stalin, however, he created a de facto monarchy where all power was concentrated in his family.

It is ironic that both Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein were Baathists who belonged to minority communities. The former was an Alawite who ruled a Sunni-majority state, while the latter was a Sunni of the Tikrit clan who ruled a Shia-majority state. Both trusted their clan members most and showered them with patronage. In fact, for all their rhetoric about socialism, the two rulers were like Sicilian mafia bosses intent on handing over power only to their sons.

Just as Saddam used torture, murder, imprisonment and even chemical weapons to control restive elements such as Marsh Arabs and Kurds, Assad used ruthless methods to eliminate opponents of his regime. He deemed the Muslim Brotherhood the greatest threat to his rule, and the 1979 attack on the Aleppo Artillery Academy gave him the perfect opportunity to strike.

Rifaat al-Assad, Assad’s brother who appositely lived for years on “the avenue of ill-gotten gains” in Paris, argued for an extermination policy. Charmingly, he was inspired by none other than Stalin. After an assassination attempt on Hafez al-Assad, Rifaat struck hard. He conducted the Tadmur Prison Massacre, killing between 500 and 2,000 political prisoners in cold blood. From now on, the Assad regime followed a pre-planned liquidation policy where people were locked up, tortured and killed on mere suspicion. Even women and children were not spared.

In 1982, some rebels ambushed Syrian troops in Hama and called for a popular uprising. In response, the regime killed an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people in a 27-day campaign, bringing in the air force to reduce the town to rubble. Such was the carnage that wild dogs gorged on corpses for months afterward. Hama broke the back of the people. Thereafter, the regime further tightened its grip by strengthening its secret police and creating an even more elaborate personality cult around Assad.

Even as Iraq stumbled after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Assad grew from strength to strength. He supported Palestinians, intervened in Lebanon and saber-rattled with Israel. So secure was Hafez al-Assad on the throne that his son’s accession to the top job was smoother than silk.

Initially, it appeared that Bashar al-Assad was a more forgiving character than his father. In 2000, he released 600 political prisoners. In 2001, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood announced that it was resuming political activity. In the same year, Pope John Paul II turned up to pay a visit. So did the still-closet Catholic Tony Blair to win Syrian support for the War on Terror.

The honeymoon did not last. Soon, Syria was in the doghouse again. The US imposed sanctions and Israel hit a Palestinian camp near Damascus. When Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered in 2005, the Syrian military had to eat humble pie and withdraw from Lebanon. Incongruously, by 2008, Syria started returning to the fold again and even established diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time since independence. In 2009, trading launched on a stock exchange in Damascus and it seemed that the Assad dynasty had more lives than a lucky cat.

The reality is that despite the appearance of strength, the Assad regime was skating on thin ice. Decades of repression had bred resentment. People chafed against a culture that prized loyalty more than competence. Poor public services, widespread corruption and high unemployment heightened discontent. When the Arab Uprisings broke out in 2011, people took to the streets in Syria.


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Almost by reflex, the regime packed off troops to crush the uprising. This time the people fought back. As violence escalated, the conflict took on sectarian hues. After years of being on the sidelines, Sunni Arabs took up arms to overthrow Alawite domination. Christians, Shias and other minorities often reluctantly ended up supporting the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the Kurds carved out their own autonomous space in both Syria and Iraq.

The conflict and chaos in Syria was a godsend to the Islamic State (IS). This organization began in Iraq after the US invasion left the country in shambles. The ideological and incompetent Bush administration dismantled the apparatus of the Iraqi state and practiced sectarian favoritism. As a result, the Shias who came to power decided it was payback time for Sunnis who had ruled the roost during the Saddam era. It is some of these Sunnis that formed the core supporters of IS and then moved into Syria to defend those who shared their faith.

Such was the brutality of IS that it put into shade the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. In the early days, the Islamic State was not so toxic. Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey were not entirely unsympathetic to the group. Even as the Assad regime relied on Iran and Hezbollah, IS benefited from idling Turkish tanks when it attacked Kobane.

As the civil war has intensified, rape, torture, beheadings, attacks on hospitals, barrel bombs and more have become par for the course. The cruelties in the conflict keep reaching new nadirs. Ceasefires have come and gone and so have peace agreements.

On February 28, this author was scathing about the flawed assumptions and wishful thinking of one such agreement. Like Neville Chamberlain, diplomats who worked on it claimed “peace in our time” while clinging to the dogma of a Westphalian state with colonial borders. A cursory look at any map that shows territory controlled by different groups reveals that borders are now meaningless for Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon. As this author wrote then, “silly lines in the sand have been washed away by frothy waves of blood.”

The Kurds are not going to give up on their de facto state that they have gained after decades of oppression. Sunni Arabs are unlikely to give up the idea of uniting across the Syria-Iraq border. Minorities like Alawites, Ismailis and Christians are likely to be uneasy about Sunni domination in a democratic Syria. The vice versa is true for Iraq where an Americano constitution framed by a Harvard expert on Jewish law has not exactly proved to be a resounding success.

There are wheels within wheels within the Syrian conflict now. The Islamic State is not only fighting sworn enemies such as Iraqi Shias and Kurdish forces, but also fellow jihadists like the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Rebel groups keep proliferating. Their interests, beliefs and goals are not exactly easy to reconcile.

Furthermore, foreign players continue to meddle, and chief among them is Russia. Syria was once a Soviet ally and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, is determined to prop up his only ally in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to remain involved. Of late, Turkey has jumped into the fray with muddled ideas and foggier plans. Meanwhile, Uncle Sam blows hot and cold without being able to decide what exactly it will do.

As anyone can see, the entire situation is a tragic mess. No wonder Syria seems cursed with a civil war set to rage on for years.

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Photo Credit: Joel Carillet