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Syria’s Unending Tragedy

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • February 10, 2016

    We know that the Egyptians spoke out demanding the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on 25 January 2011. We know that the attempt at self-immolation by the street vendor Tareq Bouazizi, marking the beginning of the demand for the fall of President Ben Ali of Tunisia, occurred on 17 December 2010. But we do not know exactly when the first public demonstration calling for the removal of Syrian President Basher al Assad occurred. That only shows that there is much ignorance about what is happening in, and to, Syria. That ignorance has been manufactured by propaganda and counter-propaganda.

    Sometime in mid-February 2011, pupils scrawled on the wall of their school that the Assad regime should ago. Syrian security grabbed the children and at least one body was returned to the family. I learnt this during a 2014 visit to Beirut. Needless to add that a few of my interlocutors swore that Assad made sure that the children were returned to their families unharmed and that no child was killed. This only shows that the state propaganda in Syria is strong. But at the same time, and as a matter of fact, the propaganda against Assad by external powers and the Syrian rebels supported by them is also strong. A neutral observer trying to understand what is happening can only recall the saying that truth is the first casualty in war.

    There is dispute even about the demands made at the beginning of the political agitation. According to one school of thought, initially the agitation was only a demand for reform. And only because of violent suppression by the state did that demand turn into an anti-Assad agitation seeking his removal. Another school holds that external powers intervened and generated the demand for Assad’s removal right from the start, and that he never had a chance to agree to reforms and avoid the unfolding tragedy. Whatever the truth is, since Syria has been ruled by two Assads, Hafez and Basher, since the 1970, what is wrong in asking for democracy when Ben Ali and Mubarak fell?

    Right from the start, Assad told the West and the rest that he should be supported as otherwise the Islamic extremists would take over. In order to support this argument, he permitted the extremists to grow in strength by not fighting them when he could have. In fact, the Islamic State (IS) grew in strength partly because of Assad’s indulgence. There are two other Presidents who were indulgent towards the IS. President Obama called them “a JV team” and decided to let them take over Mosul in June 2015 when he could have taken military action to stop them. The other is President Erdogan who permitted foreign fighters and material meant for the IS to pass through Turkey to Syria. Turkey has bought oil from the IS. Intriguingly, all the three Presidents now want to fight the IS. Of course, they do not find it possible to work together.

    If external powers had not intervened, we do not know what might have happened in Syria. Perhaps, Assad might have agreed to reforms in order to survive without killing his people. Alternately, he may have fallen without military support from Iran and Russia. Third, his security forces might have killed a few hundreds of Syrians before he agreed to acceptable reforms. In any of these scenarios, the toll would have been much less than the 250,000, which we are told is a good approximation. The 4.5 million Syrians now in Turkey, Jordan, and elsewhere including Europe would have been in Syria living normally. Around 6.5 million Syrians displaced within the country would not have been displaced or a far smaller number might have been displaced. This reasoning shows that external intervention in Syria has done enormous harm to Syrians.

    What were the motivations and actions of the external actors in Syria? External actors can be classified into two camps, pro-Assad and anti-Assad, though within the same camp there might be conflicting interests. The pro-Assad camp consists of Russia, Iran, and the Hezbollah, an “attendant lord”. The anti-Assad camp includes Saudi Arabia and its allies (Qatar and UAE), the US, France, UK, and their allies, and Turkey with its own agenda. Turkey covets Syrian territory and wants to make sure that the Kurds in Turkey do not get any support from Kurds elsewhere in the region.

    Saudi Arabia wanted Assad to be removed partly because he was seen as an ally of Iran and thus strengthening the ‘the Shia Crescent’, an unfortunate coinage of Jordan’s King Abdullah that has confused the discourse on Syria and much else. We do not know how much Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spent in Syria in support of their chosen rebels. The support can be in two ways, money for paying salaries to fighters, and arms. According to the Financial Times (18 May 2013), Qatar had by then spent USD 3 billion and Saudi Arabia even more. It is difficult to get up-to-date and reliable information in such matters, but we may reasonably conclude that billions of dollars have been spent without any progress in the project to ease out Assad.

    Turkey, as stated, supported the IS, at least until recently. Turkey has also supported its chosen rebels, the Turkomans, and permitted Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US, UK, and France to send arms to their chosen rebels. Turkey too has spent much money to bring down Assad.

    The US does not have a clearly worked out policy on Syria. In July 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly demanded Assad’s removal and on 18 August of the same year Obama repeated that demand, promptly followed by the UK, France, and Germany. We do not know what prompted Obama to issue such a public demand. We may assume that his diplomats and spies misled him into thinking that Assad’s days were numbered. It is possible that Saudi Arabia may have advised Obama to issue such a statement. Subsequently, Obama threatened to bomb Syria when reports came out of use of chemical weapons. But he backtracked and spoiled his credibility in the eyes of Saudi Arabia.

    Do the West and Saudi Arabia still believe that they can get Assad to step down? If they do, they are sadly mistaken. Following the military intervention by Russia since 30 September 2015, the military situation has turned to Assad’s advantage. There is no question of his stepping down, however mistaken may be his belief that he can, over time, recapture the territory that he has lost. The Kurds in Syria, supported by the Kurds in Iraq, the US and the West are not going to accept Assad unless they obtain autonomy, which Assad will find difficult to agree to. As regards the IS, as of now though it might lose territory, its fall is not imminent. Syria is divided into many parts de facto and to resurrect the old Syria with Assad at its head appears impossible.

    Let us look at the half-hearted and at times hare-brained attempts at a political, negotiated, resolution of the crisis. A conference held in Geneva on 30 June 2012, with Kofi Annan as the UN Peace Envoy, was a hare-brained attempt as Iran, an important external actor, was not even invited. Further, it called for a “transitional government body with full executive authority”, with the US announcing that Assad would have no place in that body and Russia promptly contradicting the US contention. Kofi Annan resigned in disgust as he found the participants not serious. Another veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi succeeded as Peace Envoy and organised another conference in Geneva in January-February 2014. This time, the UN invited Iran but withdrew the invitation as a Syrian rebel group supported by Saudi Arabia threatened to boycott the conference. The conference proved barren once again, and Brahimi resigned.

    The external powers continued adding fuel to the fire even as they pretended to be seeking a negotiated end to the conflict. On 30 September 2015, Russia started a bombing campaign and the US realised the need for another attempt at a political resolution of the crisis. The Foreign Ministers of external powers, this time including Iran, met in Vienna on 30 October 2015. The IS carried out a terrorist attack in Paris on 13 November 2015, killing 130, which led to another meeting, with more urgency, in Vienna. There was some convergence on the need to fight the IS, but differences on Assad remained, though there were signs that the West’s position was easing. Finally, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2254 on 18 December 2015 which upheld that “the Syrian people will decide Syria’s future.” The Council supported “a free and fair election” to be held within 18 months under a new constitution. The UN was asked to bring the Syrian government and the opposition together to initiate the political process in early January 2016.

    The UN sponsored talks between the Syrian Government and a part of the opposition, with the notable absence of the IS and the Kurds, started in Geneva on 1 February 2016 with the successor to Brahimi, Staffan de Mistura, acting as chair and convener. The IS was not going to be invited in any case and Turkey objected to the attendance of the Kurds since for Turkey all Kurds seeking autonomy are ‘terrorists’. The talks were “suspended” in 48 hours, mainly because Russia continued to bomb Saudi-supported rebels. The rebels had insisted on a cessation of military action against them before the conference started. It would appear that Russia and Assad believe that they can gain more militarily before they decide to sit at the negotiating table. Staffan de Mistura is continuing his efforts and has announced another meeting by 25 February. One needs to have enormous optimism against evidence to the contrary to believe that the warring sides want to talk peace, especially if one side smells military victory, however deceptive the smell might be.

    The military situation in Syria has in the last few days taken a sharp turn to the advantage of Assad and to the disadvantage of the Saudi-supported ‘moderate’ rebels in Aleppo province. That explains the Saudi statement of 4 February that it would be prepared to send ground troops to Syria. Promptly, Syria responded that foreign troops entering Syria without permission from the government would go back “in coffins.” The United Arab Emirates followed the lead of Saudi Arabia by announcing its willingness to send ground troops. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has welcomed the Saudi offer and a meeting of the Defence Ministers of states fighting the IS, due shortly in Brussels, will discuss the matter.

    Many experts are, however, sceptical about Saudi Arabia’s ability to send a force of the size required to make an impact on the ground. The Saudi army with a strength of 175,000 is mainly meant for defence. It does not have an expeditionary wing for action abroad. Further, the army is engaged in Yemen and there is no end in sight of the operations there. Saudi Arabia will try to persuade other Muslim countries to send troops. But it had no success with Pakistan or Egypt when it asked them to send troops for Yemen. Some observers have speculated that it is all an effort to force the Russians to come back to the negotiating table. Does an empty threat work? Moreover, the Saudis have said that they will participate “in a US-led coalition”. What does that mean? Does Saudi Arabia expect the US to introduce troops into Syria? There is hardly any chance of that as of now. Further, would the US like to see a tiny Saudi force defeated by the IS?

    The fourth pledging conference for aid to Syria was held in London on 4 February and a total of USD 11.2 billion was pledged. The money came from the same countries that have added fuel to the fire. Russia is an exception. It snubbed the conference by sending its ambassador in London to attend a conference of heads of government and made a marginal contribution.

    The prognosis for Syria for 2016 is bleak. The UN sponsored peace process faces immense obstacles. Assad seems to believe, and his Russian and Iranian backers seem to agree with him, that he can make considerable territorial gains in the near future. He might be proved wrong if the ‘moderate’ rebels get anti-aircraft missiles from Saudi Arabia. All told, Syria’s plight is likely to get worse before it gets better. More Syrians will be killed and the powers that be do not care. Yet, let us recall the saying that the dawn is preceded by the darkest hour.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.