While one of the great human tragedies is currently unfolding in Syria, the Muslim countries in particular and the world at large remain oblivious. Syria, once the pinnacle of civilisation, is being destroyed and decimated by a civil war that is being fuelled by regional and global rivalries. The war has taken a horrendous human toll. A staggering 11 million people have been displaced which is fifty per cent of Syria’s entire population. About 4.5 million refugees are located in neighbouring countries, majority of them in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Nearly 250 to 300 thousand casualties have occurred that continue to add up every day, every hour, many of them children and from amongst the poor. What is worse the end of conflict is nowhere in sight and instead of trying to find a peaceful resolution major global and regional countries are fighting their own proxy wars. Russia is backing Bashar al-Assad and the US is siding with the Free Syrian Army that consists mostly of former service personnel that aim at overthrowing the government, Kurds and all those forces opposing the regime except the IS and other militant groups. Layered on this at the regional level, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war with the former opposing the regime and the latter supporting Assad not just politically but also militarily.
The situation is highly complex but it is essentially the ruthless iron grip of Assad, spread over years that have created wide resentment across the country. In the past it was possible to put a lid on dissent, but now with the global media revolution it is becoming difficult for dictators to retain their grip. This is especially so when the government has such less to offer in economic benefits and there is gross underrepresentation of the majority in the power structure and governance. In Syria, the imbalance between the Sunnis and the Alawite minority in government and in the power structure is major cause for discontent. The Alawite being a sub-sect of Shia and hardly 15% in terms of population is supported by Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah of Lebanon and opposed by the rest of the Sunni Arab countries. Saudis, Turks and Qatar are openly supporting the rebels.
Indeed, it is a classic case of a state that is conducting its affairs that is doomed to fail. An unrepresentative coercive government that wants to thrust a minority rule over majority of its population. The regime has encouraged corruption to win over select groups for retaining power. More significantly, Assad pursues a foreign policy that is well beyond the capacity of the state to sustain. Relies heavily on external global and regional prop for his self-defeating domestic and external policies instead of adopting those that could have won him the goodwill of its people.
The IS is the most barbaric of the groups fighting in Syria that has committed the most heinous acts of mass killings, rape and torture on its adversaries and profess a highly convoluted interpretation of Islam. The situation could not be worse for the people of Syria that are under attack from either one or the other party. Adding to this witches brew is that apart from local fighters many are coming in droves from the Middle East, Afghanistan and even farfetched places to prove their loyalty to the IS or just for the taste of adventure.
Between the rebels, Kurdish forces and the IS they control two-thirds of the country and Assad forces are holding on to the capital Damascus, most of southern part, coastal region and the area adjoining the Lebanese border that all told constitutes one-third of Syria. The Al Nusra front has been gaining ground and elements of the Free Syrian Army that deserted and joined the rebels are caught infighting and have been unable to play a major role in the civil war. This is despite the full support they have of the Americans. It indicates that they were more a prop of theirs and not genuinely motivated as a cohesive entity under an accepted command or leadership. The IS originally captured large parts of Iraq and then subsequently expanded their influence in Syria. More recently, it has been losing ground to Assad’s forces.
US and Russian efforts to work out a ceasefire has repeatedly failed and the recent attempt was shattered by the bombing of the UN convoy carrying emergency food supplies to the Aleppo region. As of now there are no indications of Russia and the US revisiting their policies, which unfortunately is working only to the grave detriment of Syrian people and is not serving the interests of two major powers either. It is likely after the elections the new American administration reassesses its policy. Chances of Saudi Arabia and Iran coming to a common understanding on dealing with Syria looks even more remote considering their current animosity and strategic divergence. Of the many challenges that this crisis throws up the most crucial is whether Syria can ever be united again. First, there is no party among the feuding lot that is likely to emerge as a clear victor. Neither is any leader among various factions, including the ruling party, that show promise of holding the country together. Even if there are individuals, who given an opportunity could be better choices, Assad like all dictators has deliberately suppressed alternative leadership from emerging. As Assad is in no position to reunite the country, either by force or through a peace accord among warring factions, which points towards continuation of the civil war with varying intensity. He is, however, likely to hold on to the truncated part of the country as long as Russia and Iran continue to support him. For Russia, Assad is the only remaining ally in the Middle East and for Iran Assad is a trusted partner. Moreover, foreign powers can only help to an extent countries have to rise to the challenge from within. Will Syria ever have that capacity only time will tell!
Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2016.
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