The Syrian Void

(Originally published 15 March, 2014)

There is cruelty on every side of war and Syria is no exception to this normality as the civil war grinds on, consuming the country, the children and future generations of a nation with nothing but ash at their feet with which to build the new Syria or consolidate the current regime. Where did three years go for the Syrian people?

130,000 – 150,000 military personnel, rebels, and civilians are dead (over 10,000 of them innocent children) and the numbers continue to increase each week bringing stories of barrel bombs, torture, a militia group conducting a massacre or the mass-starvation of civilians in the sieges at Homs and Aleppo. The latter can also be applicable to the displaced Syrian population which equates to nine million (40% of the population) as humanitarian crisis walks hand in hand with violence.

 Syria leads the way in 2013 for epitomising the Arab’s Spring’s descent from revolutionary optimism to bleak mid-winter. Whilst the future of Libya, Turkey, and particularly Egypt remain volatile, Syria remains the benchmark for the troubling aspects of the consequences of the revolutionary fever that gripped the Middle East in the wake of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in 2010. The results  include the violation of basic human rights and the staunch stand of Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian government against democratic rights and demand for a regime change.

The collision of interests has spawned sectarian violence, the first use of chemical weapons in the 21st century and splintered the opposition into varying degrees of extremism with differing goals and strategies to removing Assad. Outsiders are finding it very difficult to define who the enemy is in Syria, the shame being that the Free Syrian Army has splintered into radical factions, eclipsing those fighting for democracy against Assad’s government.

Assad’s government, his ruthless militia Shabiha, and the Syrian Armed Forces are supported by Iran and Hezbollah, both involved in the war politically, logistically and militarily whilst the latter also fields soldiers in the conflict. The Syrian government also receives arms and political support from the Russian Federation .The main Syrian opposition body – the Syrian coalition – receives logistic and political support from major Sunni states in the Middle East, most notably Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. France, Britain and the United States have also provided political, military and logistic support to the opposition. Though as foreign onlookers have highlighted, is the West’s assistance actually being delivered to the wrong rebels, the Islamist extremists, militia, criminals and worst of all Al-Qaeda, those determined to uproot the spirit of Syria’s Revolution?

 Syria is the epicentre of a seismic shift in Middle Eastern socio-political upheaval which has created a regional catastrophe. It has shown it has the the potential to become even more problematic for the international community, at worst a serious international war which nearly proved to be the case in late August 2013 when the United States ideas of military intervention  were vetoed by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation following the Ghouta chemical attacks (21 August 2013).

The entire region has become a training ground for extremism, left, right and centre which has spilled over into Lebanon provoking sectarian rivalries into violence, Iraq (increasingly resembling a failed state), Yemen and Turkey, with the potential to drag in more dangerous players such as militant Israel, Iran and deteriorating Egypt. So often we read the papers highlighting the dangers of young English-Syrians joining the conflict, that the disaster in Syria will be felt on our doorstep and yet there is little the international community can do to smother the conflict. Foreign journalists and aid workers have been targeted and killed in the conflict, a great price to pay to running the gauntlet of sharing Syria’s tragedy and assisting the population buckling under the strain of war.

Humanitarian assistance has been vital and billions has been spent of keeping the country from capitulating in its entirety, the United States alone delivering  $385 million in aid and the United Kingdom committing £240 million to contain the threat of disease, starvation, basic sanitation and shelter during particularly harsh winters in some areas of the country. According to the UNHCR, Jordan and Lebanon are buckling under the influx of refugees, estimating the related cost at more than US$1.7 billion so far. In this resource-poor country, the government is paying hundreds of millions worth of additional subsidies to ensure refugees have access to affordable water, bread, gas and electricity. The economic cost on both Syria and the rest of region is of equal concern to local powerhouses like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and their global connections.

The stalemate  and the Syria Geneva II peace talks appear to confirm that the more things change the more they stay the same, maps and regions are redrawn and new and dangerous players emerge alongside the continuum in Syrian politics and the battle for influence on the conflict between the United States, Russia, and China. There is no doubt that Syria has irrevocably changed, but if anything it has taken a large step back from where it was in 2011 when the civil war began with both rationale and objectives shifting amongst rebel factions and regime.

That being said the stark violence remains the most disturbing aspect of the war, the images that plague the internet are harrowing. The use of napalm substances in shells, indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, and the several uses of poison gas, mass-starvation (though it is difficult to gauge who conducted the attack) and rampant militia and jihadists on both sides.  Even though it is lawless and immoral, the laws of war have been consistently violated by both sides on occasions. The unique use of social media and amateur footage has affected our perceptions of the conflict and how we view the violence on each side is part of the legacy of the civil war.

Though foreign intervention has been widely called for both by the international community, some Syrian civilians, and particularly David Cameron and Barack Obama, the West have been weakened by various failures in Iraq and Libya. The clumsy nature of the military operations in Basra, Baghdad and Helmand (Afghanistan) with no long-term strategy or understanding of the countries involved hardly convinced anyone that the West is up to the task of stabilising the country through predominant military means despite the small victory in Libya. Even then their diplomatic solutions lack conviction What we are seeing in Ukraine is Russia exploited the West hesitancy, highlighting the fact that Western hypocrisy has so often rendered the world a battlefield, particularly in the ‘9/11 decade’.

It is a tragedy that the Russian Federation looked almost heroic in halting the United States intervention in 2013 despite the fact they prop up, with Iran, the murderous regime of Assad as he slaughters his own people under the flimsy evidence that ‘terrorists’ are hijacking his dynasty. Assad’s brutality has  radicalised segments and these segments now include Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front who are side-lining and eliminating those who are fighting for democracy, human rights and the end of authoritarian government.

It may not be the headline story, military intervention is off the table but indifference to what is going on in Syria, in fact any conflict around the world is unacceptable  considering the revolution of technology which allows us to see images and events practically in real-time. We can commit and engage rather than display inaction, not wanting to prevent, and influence events. As summed up by the Youtube clip portraying a British child as a victim of war instead of in Syria “Just because it isn’t happening here, it does not mean it isn’t happening.”

Matthew Williams