IMPLOSION: Does Syria Have A Future?
By Paul Merkley.
The fifth anniversary of the Syrian civil war will be reached in March of this year.
Syria’s Place in the Unfolding Arab Spring.
Along with every other person, it seems, who went on record with thoughts about Syria’s future during the first months of that civil war, I guessed that Assad’s regime was “doomed.” (“The Impending Implosion of Syria,” www.thebayviewreview, August 12, 2012.) While I was not reckless enough to suggest how far down the road Assad’s overthrow would come, I cannot deny that I had not anticipated that he would still be in power today. But I do feel comfortable today with taking away the qualifier: “Impending”.
When the Arab Spring began in December, 2010-January, 2011, with popular demonstrations against the incumbent tyrants in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen, among other places, the consensus among Middle East commentators was that, of all the regimes that then governed Israel’s neighbours, the one most likely to stay intact was that of Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The thinking here was that Syria had the most professional armed forces, including an experienced air force, and that these were bound in exceptional loyalty to their President by the fact that they were mainly recruited from a closely-bound sect called the Alawites, to which belonged (at that time) about 12 per cent of the population.
The Alawites derive from a branch of Shia Islam but are regarded by both Shia and Sunnis as defectors from Islam – the worst kind of heretics. The Alawites know that they will face the long pent-up rage of both Sunnis and Shia should they lose their grip on power. This has so far provided motivation for the supreme ruthlessness of Assad’s army and of the shabiha, Assad’s all-Alawite version of Hitler’s Waffen-SS.
Now as the war enters its sixth year we are told that more than 250,000 people have been killed and some 11 million displaced. About 13.5 million people are in need of aid, the UN says. Hundreds of thousands, facing starvation and homelessness, have fled Syria, mainly but not exclusively, via Turkey, and of these most have begun swarming across all the borders that stand between Syria and the English Channel.
Only the most expert of specialized historians can count the number of efforts that have been made over these five years to stop the civil war by friendly diplomacy. By the early months of 2013, UN special envoy Kofi Annan and then a separate delegation sent by the Arab League had been stonewalled and humiliated by Assad. Until now, it has to be said that nothing has been accomplished.
On February 12, the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States, meeting in Munich on February 11 & 12, 2016, as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) decided to “elaborate modalities for a nationwide cessation of hostilities … [as] the first step towards a lasting ceasefire.” This “cessation” is intended immediately to allow humanitarian aid to reach people in Aleppo, the target of a major Russian-backed government offensive in the past weeks, as well as other besieged Syrian communities. However, the agreement allows attacks to continue against groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN Security Council, including ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda‘s affiliate in Syria.
Russia’s government acts upon a different definition of “terrorist organizations” than do the Western governments that participate in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. In Russia’s view, all energies directed towards dislodging Syria’s incumbent government are “terrorist” in character and purpose. Accordingly, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Serge Lavrov has already told the press that “the truce does not apply to terrorists…. The military operation against them will be continued.”
But there’s the rub: as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu points out already, “If Russia does not end its strikes on Western-backed Syrian opposition forces, a cease-fire reached by major powers will not hold and humanitarian access will not be effectively secured.” In brief: the effort is a farce – a Monty Python skit.
The conference did, however, serve to concentrate minds. The apparently insoluble calamity that faces Europe in the form of the Migrant Crisis (the Islamic Swarm, as I prefer to call it) has added urgency to the Syrian issue that did not appear at its beginnings five years ago. At Munich, this side-issue kept breaking through. Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, said, “The international order, in my view, is in its worst shape since the end of the Cold War… Overwhelmed and helpless guardians [that would be our side] are faced with increasingly boundless crises and empowered and reckless spoilers [that would be their side.]”
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and King Abdullah of Jordan, official participants at the conference, both underlined the understanding of all participants that the cessation of hostilities agreement to cease at deal will only be effective “if air strikes by Syrian and Russian forces stop.” On that same day, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to retake the “whole country…. Just because negotiations are taking place, it does not mean that we stop fighting terrorism. The two tracks are inevitable in Syria.”
Secretary of State Kerry told the press that what is about to happen is a “pause” and not a formal “cease-fire.” Most sane people will see that this is baffle-gab. Call it a pause; call it time-out; call it a “ceasefire” as most headline writers do (without the blessing of the conference) there is no precedent in the history of warfare of the side that has the momentum letting the losing side turn any moment into an opportunity to become stronger. All credible and up-to-date observers insist that the team of Assad and Putin belongs to the first category (evidently winning) and the anti-Assad forces belong to the latter (evidently losing.
A Short List of Principal Participants in the Syrian Civil War, From Nation-states to Reckless Spoilers.
A uniquely helpful guide to the Syrian crisis is an article from the website of the Gatestone Institute (www.gatestoneinstitute.org/7408 , “Syria: Checkered Past, Uncertain Future,” written by Amir Taheri, who, before the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the editor of Iran’s leading newspaper, Kayhan. Among the “reckless spoilers” (in Ischinger’s phrase) who have joined in on the effort to tear Syria limb from limb Taheri identifies the Islamic Republic of Iran, which, “already enjoying a major presence in Iraq… needed Syria to complete the ‘Shiite Crescent’ which it saw as its glacis and point of access to the Mediterranean.” Then there is Turkey, “which has emerged as the main source of support for anti-Assad forces,” and which (according to today’s news) is currently conducting a military campaign against Kurdish forces within Syria’s boundaries. Then there is the “Caliphate” that is ruled by ISIS. Then there is Russia. And then it gets complicated:
Because almost every religious and/or ethnic community is divided, some siding with Assad and others fighting against him, it is difficult to establish clear sectarian demarcation lines. Even the Kurds are deeply divided among themselves with the PKK, the Turkish Kurdish party, present in Syria as exiles for decades, holding the balance of power.
Factoring in all of this,
Syria today is a patchwork of emirates, large and small…. Many of these emirates have developed a system of coexistence that allows them to run the communities under their control and guide them in different directions. In most cases, the direction in question is towards what is marketed as “pure Muhammadan Islam” in many different forms.
The challenge today is not to rescue, through diplomatic gimmicks, a Syria that has largely ceased to exist but to help create a new Syria. That, however, is a challenge that no one today appears willing, let alone able, to face.
A Painful Conclusion.
Once again, Secretary of State John Kerry has allowed himself to be held up to ridicule before the world by entering into solemn-ass diplomacy in luxury settings in historic European cities and emerging to announce with furrowed brows agreements not worth the paper they are written on – certainly not worth the expenditure involved in wining and dining the entourages of hundreds of participants, and certainly not justifying the thousands of man-hours expended by the media in “covering the story.”
It has all been a pathetic exercise designed to persuade the Western public that peace is being advanced, while President Putin imposes the peace of the grave upon the desperate, dwindling masses of Syria. The bottom line is that Syria is gone.
Syria’s story contains the most recent proof that there are in Islam no materials out of which stable, let alone decent, government can be manufactured. So far, the Arab Spring has provided no clear proof of a Muslim-Arab nation removing a tyrant without opening the Pandora’s box of chaos.