The Syrian Nakba

LB_ER_2013_Carmen Gayo-34

LB_ER_2013_Carmen Gayo-34


Following the alleged use of chemical weapons in Idlib in 2017 and Eastern Ghouta in 2018, Tomahawk missiles and airstrikes were utilised against Al-Asad’s regime, but had little effect on the outcome of the war in the opposition’s favour. The attention of the ‘international community’ spiked during the chemical attacks, and the world prepared itself for a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, a city in northern Syria, until a deal between Turkey and Russia. The agreement between President Putin and Erdogan in Sochi established demilitarised zone, 15-20km deep, and patrols conducted by Russian Military Police and Turkish solider would enforce these zones. Major fighting in Syria’s war has come to a slow in places such as Idlib and others will continue as the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish separatists and insurgents has done, most notably as Kobane in 2014-2015, Jarabulus in 2016 and the Afrin canton in 2018. The U.S withdrawal paves the way for a renewed offensive into northern Syria, the key target being Manbij where U.S soldiers, largely special forces, had been coordinating with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS. To stave off the threat of alienating Turkey, a member of NATO, the predicted abandonment of its Kurdish-Arab coalition fighting ISIS has now occurred and renewed offensive, while delayed, will occur either at the end of 2018 or early 2019 depending on the speed at which U.S soldiers withdraw from Manbij in northeastern Syria.

Major fighting in Syria’s war has been frozen and others will continue as the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish separatists and insurgents has done.

Just before Christmas, President Trump announced that American soldiers will withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan. In Yemen, where a war between the Saudi Arabian-led coalition, Yemen’s government and the Houthis, backed by Iran, rages and an estimated 50,000 are estimated to have died while at-least 85,000 children have starved to death. Peace talks begun in Sweden in December, 2018. These developments followed an official withdrawal by the U.S military from Iraq in 2011. Only three years later, however, U.S special forces and contractors, supported by airstrikes, the Iraqi army (and its assortment of paramilitary fighters) and the Kurdistan Regional Government were back in action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The military draw downs in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan are major developments but should be treated be scepticism. Counter-terrorism operations will and have continued in many of these states. Countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya have been subject to perpetual drone strikes for years and U.S drone, mercenaries and counterinsurgency operations are expanding into places such as Niger in West Africa.

Following the Iraq War, prolonged war in Afghanistan and the disastrous fall-out of the NATO operation in Libya, the failure of the UN mission in Lebanon, controversial involvements in conflicts by proxy in Yemen, Gaza and Syria, and the continuing repercussions of the transnational war on terrorism, the appetite for conflicts in the Greater Middle East is at a very low ebb in the Western states. Without a full-scale invasion, a committed presence of NATO soldiers (similar to operations in Kosovo and Bosnia) and a willingness to confront Al-Asad, Iran, Russia, and Hizbullah militarily, deposing Al-Asad in a region where anti-Western sentiment is extremely high would have been a very risky enterprise.

Commentators have compared the Middle East to the Balkans in the 1990s. The events in the Yugoslav Wars have slipped from mainstream media debates and the conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo are infrequently used as a cross-comparisons in the Middle East’s current conflagration. The Kosovars are Palestinians (despite Kosovo and Palestine not getting along) and the Israelis are the Serbs, President Bashar Al-Asad is a new Milosevic or Mladic and the Free Syrian Army and its coalition of jihadists are the Bosniak Muslims. Aleppo is Sarajevo and Srebrenica and the Kosovo intervention must be duplicated for a no-fly zone in Syria. Comparisons are useful, at times, and sometimes unhelpful. While the Balkans is tied at the hip to the Middle East, the Yugoslav Wars and their consequences are first and foremost a question that spans the United States, Western Europe, Russia and the Balkans themselves. The Yugoslav Wars were European conflicts, not Middle Eastern or African. It was a crisis on the doorsteps of countries such as Greece, Romania and countries in central Europe such as Hungary and Austria. The only thing separating Italy from the conflict was the Adriatic Sea.

Furthermore, liberal interventionists forget that the Kosovo War, and Bosnia, laid the path for Blair’s doctrine of humanitarian intervention, a doctrine which was abused and manipulated to the maximum in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001 and 2003. The repercussion of the Iraq War, has had a knock on effect in Syria, where a precarious air war by NATO has left Syrian and Iraqi cities like Mosul and Raqqa in ruins. Clinton and Tony Blair are revered in Kosovo, but largely despised in Iraq. The war and horrific sanctions there, under the rubric of combating terrorism and protecting human rights, have badly damaged the countries involved and the credibility of humanitarian interventionism. While Iraq’s war has largely come to a close, the country is an environmental and traumatised post-conflict society and in Afghanistan the conflict continues unabated. 

The Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs has estimated the death toll in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at between 480,000 and 507,000. As Andrew Bachevich comments, “to exclude the Balkans campaigns from the narrative of America’s War for the Greater Middle East is to overlook weaknesses in U.S military practice destined to afflict the larger-scale military campaigns just ahead. Two weaknesses stand out. The first relates to campaign design and the challenges inherent in aligning military plans with political purpose. In Kosovo in particular, the disconnect between the two was near absolute.” Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan all experienced some form of intervention on the part of NATO. Once the wars concluded in all six, they were largely forgotten. The conflicts went into hibernation, but the root causes of them remained, largely unaddressed. The same happened in Iraq in 2011, and returned with vengeance as the civil war restarted almost as soon as the coalition had departed. The Balkans is still struggling with organised crime, corruption and oligarchs who have planting themselves in the young democracies across the region. While KFOR, the U.N and the EU remain in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a huge number of NGOs support the countries still, they remain short-term checks which need concrete political, environmental and social solutions. 

That being said, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina succeeded in that they brought an end to appalling violence. Would intervention have succeeded in Syria? If it had been conducted sooner then 2017 (when the war was already tipped in Al-Asad’s favour), and in the earlier stages of the war perhaps it would have brought Al-Asad to the negotiating table. President Obama’s stance that the Syrian president would have to “step aside” turned the Syrian president’s war strategy into a case of brinksmanship where limited airstrikes before Russia’s relationship with the regime began to tighten could have convinced his clique (who adopted a zero-sum game from the start) to share more power with the opposition and carry out limited economic and political reforms. From Al-Asad’s perspective it was either Western-sponsored regime change which Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi faced (both ended up dead) or the opposition. Even Slobodan Milosevic, responsible for ethnic cleansing and genocide in Kosovo and Bosnia, who ended up being convicted, negotiated during the Dayton Accords in 1995 to end war in Bosnian and Herzegovina. In Syria’s case, it was a case of too little, too late and the result of the ‘international community’ overplaying its hand in countries such as Kosovo and Iraq, something Russia and China were keen to blunt in future wars, Syria being one of them. The costs were catastrophic for Syria as the Al-Asad regime committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own people - with the tacit approval of the Kremlin - and destroyed the country from top to bottom.

For Vladimir Putin as with Ukraine, Chechnya and Georgia, military victories in Syria have presented an image of a strong Russia abroad. However, such actions have fed the narrative that Russia’s intransigence has kick-started a new Cold War. This has been catalysed by the use of Novichok in Salisbury, alleged meddling in the U.S elections through social media and the ties between Putin and Trump. In the context of the Syrian War, the international dynamics could be Russia’s undoing for several reasons. Firstly, the intervention in Syria has made Russian officials and its cities a target for hard-line Salafi-jihadists, as seen by attacks in both Moscow and St. Petersburg and the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Turkey in 2016. Hundreds of Russian soldiers have been killed and wounded, not including the pro-Kremlin mercenaries and contractors fighting in Syria. Secondly, history has not been kind to superpowers and empire in the Middle East or Central Asia, even if their influence remains. The Soviet-Afghan War and the fall-out of the Yom Kippur War and the Six Day War were setbacks for Russian power brokers in the region and their allies, Syria, the pro-Soviet Afghan government, and Egypt, were unpredictable. Today also, Turkey, Iran and the Al-Asad regime do not always play by Moscow’s rules and with tensions between Israel, Iran and Hizbullah constant and Turkey establishing itself as a key faction in Syria’s war, there are multiple frictions which could lead to Russia’s diplomatic endeavours unravelling without American soldiers on the ground.


From Hafez Al-Asad’s brutal war in Hama in 1982-1983 against the Muslim Brotherhood to the civil war turned international conflict under his son Bashar Al-Asad, Syria’s wounds run deep and the latest, and perhaps worst round of conflict in the country’s modern history, will prolong the country’s recent suffering. Lebanon has barely began the process of healing the wounds of the al-hawadith (or events) which occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and with Al-Asad’s regime still in charge, it is unlikely the Syrian War’s contemporary historical narrative will be fairly written. After Hama was razed to the ground, Bashar’s father simply built over the bones. In Syria, there is already evidence to suggest that President Al-Asad will do the same, as Sunni civilians and members of the opposition have argued that the laws passed by the government could be classified as ethnic cleansing. Robert Fisk compared the plight of Syrian Sunnis and the introduction of Law 10 to that of the Palestinians in 1947 and 1948 whose homes, demolished during fighting, were built over by Jewish refugees, migrants and settlers – spearheaded by Ben Gurion’s Zionist project. The law could be wielded as a weapon to those wanting to return, or in theory as IRIN News reports, fill in socio-economic gaps which existed before the war in derelict slums and driven by the urbanisation of Syrian society.

It is not only the destruction of homes and communities, and burying the truth, that will leave a mark on Syrian society. The U.N published a report detailing the widespread rape of men, women and children during the conflict. Mental health disorders, PTSD, self-harm, suicide and anxiety disorders has become an epidemic. Furthermore, the impact of ethnic cleansing and its repercussions are only beginning to take hold and multiple factions on different sides of the war have changed the demographic layout of the country. ISIS have turned Iraq and Syria into mass-graves and as Amnesty International detailed in 2014, ethnic cleansing and genocide decimated communities in northwest Iraq in the Ninewa province including the Yezidis. Human Rights Watch have also alleged that ethnic cleansing campaigns was carried out by the YPG and KRG affiliated Peshmerga units in both Syria and Iraq against Sunni Arab populations. Tit-for-tat cleansing operations were carried out by both Alawite and Sunni communities during the sectarian and ethnic violence. Members of the Free Syrian Army, supported by Turkey, during operations in Afrin were seen looting and plundering homes formerly occupied by Syrian Kurds.

Through intimidation, the threat or actual act of rape, mass-killings and war crimes, including crimes against humanity, have changed the contours of society and how communities now and will interact for the foreseeable future as the ‘international community’ and the European powers, through backchannels, help President Al-Asad to rebuild Syria and compete for the contracts which will enable them to do so. Rebel-held areas are, at times, inaccessible or hampered by security issues. Idlib was described by The Times as a new ‘Gaza’ where torture, criminality and kidnap are rife, even if grass-roots democracy has survived. The refugee crisis and internal displacements remain a major international and regional challenge, with Jordan and Lebanon looking to return refugees to Syria and insecurity impeding humanitarian access in camps: a result which is increasing the suffering of internally displaced people, including reports of starvation in camps such as Rukban. Thousands of children in Idlib, amongst four million trapped in freezing conditions, are missing out on school and some are starving, seriously wounded and suffering from mental health disorders.

It is impossible to determine how many people have died in Syria’s international conflict, but the impact, like that of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) will be multi-generational and with President Al-Asad to remain in power, the likelihood of the traumas of the Syrian revolt of 2011 and the country’s descent in civil war in 2012 being adequately addressed will be negligible. The country’s divisions will go into a deep freeze, however so long as they are not addressed, the return to war in the future remains high. That is where Bosnia and Syria become more similar: war crimes are denied and the scars of war are left unhealed. The way we can redeem ourselves for failing the people of Syria is giving them a voice to their suffering, their stories, their hopes and the reality of what happened and continues to happen in this devastating war.