Syria War: Easy to start a war, hard to stop it

None of those who want to dominate the region are willing to put the Syrian people’s well-being at the forefront 

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Syria enters its eighth year of a bloody and unforgiving war. The death toll is catastrophic. After the number reached 200,000, the United Nations stopped keeping count. It is estimated that of a population of 23 million, close to half a million have been killed. Mortuary counts are unreliable. The numbers do not clearly state how many of the dead were fighters and how many were civilians.

They do not say how many were killed by the government and its allies and how many were killed by the various rebel groups. Half of Syria’s population is displaced, the majority of them within the country. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan host most of the Syrians who have fled the country. Cities – such as Aleppo and Homs – have been devastated by the violence. Hunger stalks the land. So does illiteracy and disease. This is even more tragic because Syria – for all its problems – had a population that did not suffer from the list of problems faced by many formerly colonised states. The descent into hell has been swift.

A Mirror of Rival Interests

Peace talks in Geneva (Switzerland) and Astana (Kazakhstan) seem never to move forward. Syrians are often absent from these discussions. Powerful countries try to determine Syria’s future, but without success. Their disagreements are too grave and their leverage on the fighters in Syria is not as clear as they had imagined. This is not a war for nothing. It is a war to control West Asia, a war that proves journalist Patrick Seale’s 1965 definition of Syria – ‘the mirror of rival interests’. Syria’s own well-being has been sacrificed for a regional power-game. This is what the war is about.

Not nothing, but about regional power. None of those who want to dominate the region are willing to put the Syrian people’s well-being at the forefront. Too much is at stake here. Syrians are sacrificed for various global and regional agendas. Armies of various kinds walk freely across the country. It is now clear that the Syrian government – backed by Iran, Russia and the Lebanese political movement Hezbollah – is in control of the bulk of the country. What appeared to be inevitable – that the government of Bashar al-Assad would fall – is now increasingly impossible. The intervention of Russian forces into Syria in September 2015 made a Western bombardment of Damascus out of the question.

A Period of Bloodletting

A long time has passed since the demonstrations in March 2011 that the Syrian government suppressed. The old dynamic of the 2005 Damascus Spring was quickly snuffed out. It was improbable that the Syrian opposition would be able to overthrow the government. External intervention from the West, the Gulf Arabs and Turkey months into the uprising transformed the domestic political struggle into a regional proxy war. It was not a surprise that a year into the conflict the extreme political forces – including those inspired by al-Qaeda – had risen to dominate the military opposition forces. Democracy was off the table. This was going to be an extended period of bloodletting. After the Russian intervention, one backer of these extreme forces after another began to find the way forward blocked.

Not long into this war, the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq – the Islamic State of Iraq – entered Syria and expanded its ambitions to become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The fighters from this sectarian and extremist group whipped across Northern Syria. They threatened to sweep across West Asia, breaking boundaries and capturing territory swiftly. The emergence of ISIS allowed the West to refocus its attention on the war against ISIS and it allowed the Syrian government to define the rebels as terrorists.

The Turkish journalist Vecih Cüzdan told Tricontinental that the entry of Russia into the conflict in September 2015 brought in the ‘power that changed the course of the war.’ It should have been evident to the West, Turkey and the Gulf Arabs that the war was over and that they should urge their proxies to sue for peace. But this is what they did not do. The continuation of the war, with no possible victory for the rebels, has only contributed to the death toll and the further destruction of this great country. Meanwhile, regional powers have begun to slice up Syria. The Israelis have formed a proxy army to build a buffer zone around the already illegally held Golan Heights.

In the north, the Syrian branch of the Kurdish people – a nationality that is spread out across Turkey, Iraq and Iran – formed an enclave called Rojava or western Kurdistan. Turkey, which has opposed any sign of a Kurdish state, intervened to prevent the Syrian Kurds from forming their own state. The Lebanese political movement Hezbollah has built a protective wall along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Iran has helped Syria open the roadway that runs from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Beirut. This will be a crucial artery to resupply Hezbollah. The United States has established a presence in the oil rich east and northeast, with bases that have begun to take on an air of permanence. What to make of this conflict? The details are bewildering.

It is difficult to agree on the origins of the conflict. Difficult even to agree on the words to use to define the rebels and the dead. It is hard to understand the seeming endlessness of the war, the bloodletting that has become commonplace.

Endgame?

The Syrian government has taken the cities and towns along its western flank, from Dara’a to Aleppo. A small pocket remains in Idlib, where the various extremists and other rebels have been congregated. It is in this town of Idlib that the government sees the final battle for control over Syria. It is already the case that the Turkish government, which had once supported these rebels, has now washed its hands of them. Turkey has decided that it is far more important to quell the Kurdish dreams of autonomy along its border than to overthrow Assad. This means that the rebels no longer have access to an open Turkish border nor do they have access to Gulf Arab money and support. Their political benefactors – whether the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (based in Istanbul) or the Saudi royal family – have quit the field. The rebels will refuse to surrender and the government will find no avenue for a political settlement with them. The battle of Idlib will be as deadly as the rest of this brutal war.

Rumours circulate that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia and Israel are eager for a military strike against Damascus to weaken the bargaining position of the Assad government. It is felt that a victory for the Assad government would be a victory for Iran, for Russia and for Hezbollah. The West – mainly the United States – as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel will not tolerate such a victory. Israel finds it objectionable that Syria is now closer to Iran and that Hezbollah can now be rearmed by road through Iraq and Syria.

This is also objectionable to Saudi Arabia and to the West. They would have liked to see Iran defeated in the region. But their calculations have not added up. A victory for Assad, in other words, would be seen as a defeat for the West, for the Saudis and for Israel. Whether this is actually the case, given that Syria is weakened deeply by the human and physical toll of this war, is irrelevant. Whether chemical weapons have been used in this war is again sidelined, since the accusations of their use have been deemed sufficient justification for Western bombardment of the Syrian government’s military assets (as in the 2017 missile strike on the Shayrat base). The presence of Russian troops, however, has stayed the hand of a full-scale assault on the Assad government. This is the first time that the Russians have intervened since the fall of the USSR to prevent a Western military intervention. The West has long found it hard to settle on allies on the ground for its regime change war in Syria.

The fact that so many of the rebel groups seemed to be affiliated to al-Qaeda made it impossible to openly back them. The Free Syrian Army – a rag tag group of defectors and others – was in no position to confront the Syrian army by itself. When ISIS emerged as a threat in the north of Syria, the US turned to the Syrian Kurds for assistance. A combination of US air power and Syrian Kurdish courage on the ground defeated ISIS. But then, when the gains of the Syrian Kurds disturbed the Turks, the United States did nothing to prevent a Turkish intervention. It says a great deal about the complexity of the battlefield that the Syrian Kurds were sacrificed. It also says much about the United States that it could so easily betray its allies.

It is easy to start a war. It is hard to stop it.

The text above has been reproduced from a report, titled Syria’s Bloody and Unforgiving War, published by Tricontinental. Tricontinental identifies itself as an international, movement-driven institution focused on stimulating intellectual debate that serves people’s aspirations.

(This is the first of the two-part series. The second part of the report will be published tomorrow).

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