Six years ago, the Syrian people decided after decades of oppression to cease being mere subjects and to seize a moment of combined enthusiasm and wrath to become full citizens, and to finally determine their destiny. And like all moments of revolutionary and transformational changes, it was beautiful, and fleeting before it was tragically and violently cut short.
Growing up in Lebanon in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Syria culturally and socially was the closest Arab country to Lebanon. Visiting Damascus and enjoying its cultural riches, its incredible mosaic of peoples, histories, tastes, and sounds was an experience to behold. I was 16 years old when I first visited Damascus, in search of a book of poetry by Muhammad al-Maghut.
It was my first short pilgrimage. I was enthralled after going through the famed Souq Al-Hamidiyah, and being intoxicated by its smells, colors and cacophony of sounds, before finding myself in the courtyard of the Great Umayyad Mosque. I still feel a shiver down my spine every time I remember that first encounter with pure elegance. Little did I know then, that decades later I would visit the exquisite Mosque of Córdoba, Spain, another Umayyad treasure, at the height of Syria’s war.
This was immediately after the destruction of the graceful minaret of Aleppo's old Umayyad Mosque, built in the ninth century. In Córdoba, I wanted to experience the Mosque alone. Walking among its beautifully proportioned columns and arches, and stopping to take in the incredibly intricate art work particularly the ornate ceiling, I heard myself murmuring in a state of trance: how refined, how refined.
It was then that the war in Syria jolted me out of my hypnosis. Is it possible that the descendants of the Umayyads in Syria are destroying the most beautiful structures their forefathers have built centuries ago, while this splendid Umayyad Mosque in the heart of Spain, known for centuries as Al-Andalus, is preserved and protected?
Six years and counting
After six long and lean years, Syria and its people have been radically transformed in ways almost impossible to fathom. Syria’s cities have been gutted, their streets in as much as one can call them streets look like little valleys surrounded by mountains of rubbles, in many places twisted metal and pulverized concrete make for ugly pyramids of different sizes.
I often wondered that if hell has streets, they would look as forbidden and scary as what goes for streets in many Syrian cities. Even rural areas have been deformed. Six years of killings left half a million Syrians dead, most of them civilians with large percentage of them women and children. Five millions, including some of Syria’s best and brightest, were reduced to refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and scattered throughout Europe after traversing borders and walls and sailing to distant lands on rickety boats the cruel cold waters of the Mediterranean burying some of them in its watery graves.
Little did these refugees know that their plight and presence would shake the very foundation of the European Union, and the idea of a European Union whole, free, and diverse will be assaulted by Russia’s autocratic president Vladimir Putin, and a confederacy of like-minded and would be European autocrats wrapping themselves with the cloaks of hyper-nationalism, with more than a tinge of anti-Muslim bigotry. More than seven million became refugees in their own country.
No leader in modern times used these tools of war to savage his own people as Bashar al-Assad did in the last six years.Hisham Melhem
A recent report issued by the UN children’s agency UNICEF said that Syria’s children have suffered their “worst year” in 2016. During one week in September during the Assad regime’s assault on Aleppo 96 children were killed and 223 wounded. UNICEF estimates that 1.7 million Syrian children are out of school. And six million Syrian kids depend on international humanitarian assistance.
We are watching the making of a generation of human wreckage; and the world after six years has become numbed to their tragedy. A decade or so from now, the Middle East and the world will have a different kind of encounter with Syria’s abandoned children, later angry, very angry young men.
What began as peaceful, spontaneous protest movement for reform, accountability and empowerment, was quickly transformed by the brutal violence visited by the Assad regime on the peaceful activists. The diabolical regime while brutalizing the protesters, calling them “terrorists” serving “foreign conspiracies”, began to frame the rebellion as a Sunni extremist movement bent on exercising sectarian revenge against the minorities that only his regime is capable of protecting.
The release of hundreds, maybe thousands of Islamist opponents in Assad’s prisons helped giving the rebellion an Islamist façade early on. There is no doubt, that the regional powers helped “Islamize” the rebellion, when they began to help various Islamist groups loyal or beholden to them. The early rise of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian off-shoot of al Qaeda was the first ominous sign that the initial nationalist rebellion will be hijacked by a hardline violent and sectarian force alien in its outlook and practices to the majority of Syrians.
When the so-called Islamic State ISIS drove Syrian rebels from Raqqa, in 2014 the die was cast. A new ill wind will sweep the land. But for all the depredations of ISIS and al-Nusra in its various metamorphoses, and for all the sick ways ISIS executed its enemies, it was the regime of Assad that killed most of the civilians in Syria.
The war in Syria always reminded me of the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) in which major European powers, in addition to tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world came to Spain to determine the future of the country, and after 1939, the future of the world.Hisham Melhem
There was a method in Assad’s mass killings of Syrians. He did so gradually, with one eye on his victims, and the other eye on the then weary US president Barack Obama. When Assad realized that Obama’s reaction will remain within the realm of righteous condemnation and indignation, he began to escalate. Machine guns were replaced with artillery, helicopter gunships gave way to large helicopters laden with barrel bombs, then fixed wing aircraft bombers followed, which were supplemented by Scud missiles, then special rockets armed with chemical weapons to be used as a weapon of both terror, and mass killing.
Assad perfected in the twenty first century the use of medieval tactics of siege warfare and starvation. No leader in modern times used these tools of war to savage his own people as Bashar Assad did in the last six years. Assad’s regime would have collapsed under its own weight had it not been for the military intervention, of Iran and its Shiite militia auxiliaries from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, and later the deployment of Revolutionary Guard advisors and special units. But even this intervention by Assad’s biggest regional ally was not enough, and in September 2015, after Russia realized that the Obama administration was essentially retrenching from Syria, it dispatched dozens of warplanes to Northern Syria, thus changing radically the balance of power in the country. From the beginning, the tripartite alliance of Assad regime, Iran and Russia were bent on imposing military facts on the ground while talking diplomacy, while the Obama administration willfully dropped all its military options.
Even the American limited arming of some Syrian factions, was never serious. America deprived itself of any leverage in Syria. President Obama engaged in embarrassing and morally disgusting dissembling about his intentions and actions and inactions in Syria. Former secretary of state John Kerry became the American version of the Flying Dutchman traveling from capital to capital, meeting and pleading with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov who ran circles around him.
Syria as a war of all against all
The war in Syria always reminded me of the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) in which major European powers, in addition to tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world came to Spain to determine the future of the country, and after 1939, the future of the world. For the war in Spain was the prelude to the Second World War. Just look at the armies fighting in Syria today. Both the greatest military powers in the World have forces on the ground in Syria, providing military and logistical support for their proxies (this is the new form of warfare in today’s complex world). The fact that the forces of the US and Russia are not considerable, the political risks are. The US also is leading an international air campaign in Syria against ISIS.
The three major non-Arab states in the region: Iran, Turkey and Israel are fighting in Syria both directly and through proxies. The Israelis conduct air raids to prevent the delivery of new arms shipments from Iran to Hezbollah, and to keep Hezbollah and other armed factions from establishing themselves in areas adjacent to the Israeli occupied Syrian Golan heights. Turkey first opened its borders to would be fighters, Jihadists and cutthroats joining the delirious killing marauders of ISIS, to help topple the Assad regime, regardless of who would do that or what happens the day after, then intervened directly and by proxies to defeat and/or contain its enemies; the armed Kurdish groups, including those helped and supported by the US Iran simply wanted to keep its Syrian satrap in power, so that it could maintain its new status as a Mediterranean power, given its influence in Syria and its huge military and political investment in Lebanon, through its proxy Hezbollah which, for all intents and purposes has hijacked the hapless Lebanese state.
In the environs of the city of Manbij in Northern Syria there are elements of the Syrian army, supported by the Russian forces; they are deployed in the proximity of Turkish soldiers, who are not that far from the newly arrived American Special Forces. Mapping Syria’s Islamist opposition forces, the obvious disturbing truth is that, Jabhat al-Nusra in its latest metamorphoses will dominate in the foreseeable future all other factions that it is trying to subdue by force and intimidation.
Whither America in Syria and Iraq
The Trump administration is not developing a political strategy to deal with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, beyond ratcheting up military operations. The US will likely deploy more modest forces, maybe another thousand elements of special forces, after removing the artificial caps on the number of US forces in Iraq (5000) and Syria (500) imposed by the Obama administration. It is a question of time that ISIS will be defeated in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.
The problem is that there is no answer to the question: what comes the next day, let alone the next decade by way of governance. Given the current toxic sectarian dynamics the victories in Mosul and Raqqa will likely be pyrrhic victories, and the real winner will be identity politics.
President Trump believes that there is a military solution to ISIS and radical Islamism, not realizing that there are military options but not solutions to what ISIS and the other extremists represent. Throughout the election campaign, candidate Trump kept calling for the defeat of the “bad guys”. He is not the kind of leader who understand, let alone practice strategic patience and pursue a long term strategy that answers not only the question of what comes the next day, but attempts to answer, what comes the next decade. Short of such a strategy, president Trump will demonstrate once again the tragic limits of America’s military power, in another Arabian desert.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on US-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem