Sumera B Reshi
The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision and same holds true for Bashar al-Asad, the 19th President of Syria. Being an Ophthalmologist, Asad is as blind as an Owl. Thus, he can’t see beyond power. During his tenure, the Syrian conflict has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis of our times. Eight years of conflict wreaked havoc on Syrian population. Archaeological evidence supports the view that Syrian civilization was one of the most ancient on earth. Syria was synonymous with the Levant (known in Arabic as Al Sham). But that was the past. Since 2011, Syria has witnessed history’s worst civil war. Today Syria is in complete disarray which has taken the lives of nearly 500,000 people and displaced more than 10 million. Nearly 13.5 million are in dire need of humanitarian assistance within Syria, of which more than six million are internally displaced. Approximately, five million have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
The first victims of the slaughterhouse were in the Middle East, not Europe. Yet Europe is connected to these atrocities in many ways. They sat watching television images of children being bombed in their hospital beds in eastern Ghouta. In response, their warlords issued press releasing condemning Asad regime. However, Europe failed to take Bashar al-Asad to the negotiating table. Political experts believe that had the West used sufficient and timely pressure on Bashar al-Asad, the situation might have been different. The irony is that the West was unbeaten to force Milosovec Slobodan to sign the 1995 Dayton agreement in order to put an end to mass atrocities in Bosnia, however, it failed miserably to halt the eight-year-long brutal civil war in Syria.
Syria kept on fire from those who are against or in favor of Asad regime and those who support Kurdish Turks and those who follow Shiite Islam and those who wanted to wrestle their power and those who wanted to prove they still exist despite broken into pieces. Gulf countries were busy in Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit and the inauguration of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi and Pakistan was preoccupied with Pakistan Super League as the cricket fever has left them completely unconscious of the happening in the Muslim World. Death of innocent Syrian children mattered less to the so-called objective Pakistani media, however, the death of an Indian legendary actor Sridevi was of paramount importance. None of them cared for the undiminishing bloodbath of inoffensive Syrians since long.
Eight years of armed conflict which began with anti-government protests in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on the school wall escalated into a full-scale civil war. The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding President Assad’s resignation. The government’s use of force to crush the dissent merely hardened the protesters’ resolve. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.
Since 2011, the whole world acted as a spectator of the vicious circle of death. Certainly, Uncle Sam – the US lost an opportunity to break a deal in 2013 when it failed to sustain a red line over the chemical weapons use in Syria, thus the US hesitation bolstered Russia to launch an assault and support Bashar al-Asad.
Not only the US, Britain also refrained from using its influence to pressure Syrian government. However, France was ready to take off its fighter planes in August 2013 but feared to go alone. Ever since 2011, Syria is in utter chaos and destruction which is continuing unabated and is concerned.
At the end of cold war, Europe vowed to bring in stability, nonetheless, in recent years, instability and chaos have overrun into Europe from the outside. Europe at one time asserted that it won’t let the past repeat itself, but it failed to keep the promise. Today, Europe is a mute onlooker and adverse military actor. On the contrary, France and Britain are the former colonial powers in the Middle East who are insignificant in present times. Like a paralyzed being, it can watch everything but can hardly make a move.
With the fall of Raqqa, the crisis in Syria deepened and transformed into war-like situations. It isn’t internal conflict now, rather many regional and international powers (Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US) are involved if not openly but subtly in war-torn Syria. These big wigs aren’t helping Syria, rather they are vying for territorial control. Some experts like to draw with Lebanon’s 15-year conflict by which measure Syria may be only at the midpoint of its proxy war.
Since the intervention of outside sponsors like Russia and Iran, the so-called caliphate of Islamic State (IS) has disintegrated, president Bashar al-Asad is intact as the de facto ruler of Syria, and Russia has been successful in pushing back rebels and saving Bashar al-Asad. Moreover, Turkey has also jumped into the ring by sending its troops over its border to fight Kurdish forces. The US has been triumphant in killing its rival Russians and long-standing tensions between Iran and Israel have flared to new dimensions, yet there is no escape to the Syrian crisis. The conflict is increasing in all dimensions each day and since past eight years, internal conflict has taken every inch of Syria into the hostage. Why is the war in Syria heating up? Why there is no escape? Certainly, the answer lies with the external actors who have hidden agenda’s in Syria.
Once the indigenous uprising against President Bashar al-Asad, the conflict has transmuted now more than just a battle between those for or against Assad. It has also acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in regional and world powers. The rise of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has added a further dimension. In recent years the collapse of Islamic State (IS) has further widened fissures among the foreign powers elbowing for a say in Syrian future. Recently, the US Secretary of state, Rex Tillerson announced that the US troops are staying in Kurdish-held parts of Syria until IS no longer posed a threat and a political solution to the war had been found.
The presence of American troops in Kurdish –held parts of Syria enflamed Turkey, a NATO ally. Turkey considers some America’s Kurdish partners like the People’s Protection Units (YPG) who are Kurdish militia in Syria as terrorists. Therefore, the moment Tillerson announced the US plans in Syria, Turkey army attacked Afrin, a territory in north-western Syria controlled by YPG. However, there are no American troops in Afrin, yet Turkey threatened to march on Manbij. American pledge to stay in Syria until it clears the country of IS has equally angered Russia which backed Turkey in carrying out assault in Afrin. This game of power display has further exacerbated the situations in Syria.
Syria as of now is less of an internal conflict. What began as another Arab Spring uprising against an autocratic ruler has mushroomed into a brutal proxy war that has drawn in regional and world powers. Each one of them wrestles their muscle to gain influence. Besides Turkey, Russia and the US, Iran is also into the fray.
Iran’s influence in Syria is increasing since it seeks to reinforce its position in order to ensure the supply of weapons to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. The Middle East is now the battlefield of power plays. Hezbollah is an Iranian backed militant group who are tiptoeing closer to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Iran and Israel can’t see eye to eye and Israel’s fears grow in step with Iran’s influence in the region.
Power Play by External Actors
The pivotal factor which has exacerbated the conflict in Syria has been the intervention of regional and world powers, including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Their military, financial and political support for the government and opposition has contributed to the intensification and continuation of the fighting and turned Syria into a proxy battleground.
Furthermore, jihadist groups have also seized on the divisions, and their rise has added a further dimension to the war. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance formed by what was once the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, controls large parts of the north-west. Also, thousands of Shia militiamen from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are fighting alongside the Syrian army, in order, they say, to protect Shia holy sites.
In disguise, each country is trying to get rid of its enemy and Syria is a free battleground. Since the start of the conflict, Iran has been one of the strongest advocates of Asad’s regime, supporting him with money, weapons and intelligence. Iran’s involvement in Syria has portrayed it as a guardian of Shiism. Further, Iran is in favor of keeping Asad in power so that Tehran can use Syria to flow its aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Asad’s cohorts gel nicely with Iran as they favor Iran over Saudi Arabia for regional leadership.
In addition, Israel has been so concerned by Hezbollah’s acquisition of advanced weaponry and what it calls Iran’s “entrenchment” in Syria that it has carried out dozens of air strikes seeking to prevent them.
Another external actor Russia joined the WrestleMania in 2015. They helped Bashar al-Asad to get rid of anti-Asad elements. Russian presence in Syria is that it wants to secure its influence in the Middle East by keeping Asad in office and in return secure an important military airbase in the western province of Latakia and naval base in the port city of Taratus. The larger goal of Moscow to strengthen Russian prestige in the Middle East at the expense of the US.
Saudi Arabia being in close proximity to Syria does have its impact on its polity. Saudi is the same what the US is for the rest of the world – Middle East Uncle Sam. It hasn’t either been silent. It has pumped money and weapons to Syrian opposition forces and has been an intrinsic part of a US-led international coalition.
People believe that in present times Turkey is the only saviour of the Muslims. Turkey has been more vocal to issues pertaining to Muslims especially the plight of Rohingya Muslim by majority Buddhist elite and now innocent Syrians. Turkey has been an ardent supporter of the rebels; however, in the guise of a sympathizer, it has tried every muscle to contain Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) which it considers a threat to its autonomy and sovereignty.
Furthermore, it is unlikely for the big brother (the US) not to show up when the lesser players are already in the playground. By default, the US has to be omnipotent like the God. Where there is conflict, there is the US. Its foremost goal has been the destruction of IS and other extremist groups in Syria.
Apart from its opposition to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, the Trump administration’s position on Assad’s future is more ambiguous. Until the external factors stay to play their power game, Syria is unlikely to get any respite from the bloodbath.