After three calamitous years; whither Syria?

Three years after the initial enthusiasm that swept Syrian towns, a dark, foreboding despair has descended on the scorched land.

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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As the Syrian war rages into its fourth year and the horizon of a political settlement is nowhere to be seen, the prospect of a protracted and grinding conflict lasting for years and devouring a whole generation of Syrians seems to be now the stark reality of that tormented lonely country.

The convulsions in Syria today defy the categories usually applied in political analysis or strategic assessment; its Hobbesian unraveling does not lend itself to rational outcomes. Three years of horrors and wanton violence have plunged Syria into what the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called a State of Nature, leading to a "war of all against all".

Three years after the initial enthusiasm that swept Syrian towns and cities, where peaceful demonstrators, discovered and heard for the first time in decades their true voices shouting “freedom”, a dark, foreboding despair has descended on the scorched land.

Like many analysts who care a lot about Syria, I have written my share of analysis of the conflict, the warring parties, and the regional and international contexts. And like many of them I had my hits and my misses. Recently however, I find myself eulogizing Syria more than analyzing its constantly shifting political and security shades.

And since I know that it is the time of the assassins in Syria, I also feel that it is the time of writing my own Book of Lamentations, mourning what was enchanting about Syria; the smiling faces, the sights, colors, smells, the prose and the poetry I encountered on my first visits to Syria as a teenager; and the promise of the future I will not see.

I still remember vividly how I tried to absorb Damascus (one of the almost holy trinity of cities for my generation of Arabs, along with Cairo and Baghdad) on my first trip, while searching frantically for a copy of “Sadness in the Moonlight” a collection of poetry by Mohammed al-Maghout, a Syrian poet and playwright.

After three years of slaughter, how is it possible to analyze the killing of 10,000 Syrian children, out of 150,000 dead? At least 1.2 million children have fled Syria to neighboring countries. The war has left a “shattered health system resulting in brutal medical practices that have left millions of children suffering," according to a Save the Children report.

Thousands of children died because they had no access to treatment of preventable diseases such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. There are credible reports of the return of the dreaded polio, a crippling various that was successfully eradicated in Syria years ago.

Reading another report about the agony of Syria’s children and watching their empty, sad eyes I could not but remember the wrenching conversation about evil and the existence of God between Ivan and Alyosha the two Karamazov brothers in the chapter titled “Rebellion” in Dostoevsky’s great novel “The Brothers Karamazov.”

Ivan, the radical atheist after recounting to the Christ-like Alyosha harrowing stories of the torture and gratuitous killing of children, then concludes that he cannot accept a supposedly loving God that would allow such suffering. He tells Alyosha “Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future?”

It is almost a year since the United Nations has stopped compiling the death toll in Syria, citing the dangerous conditions on the ground. Only Syrians nowadays keep their wary eyes on the reaper. How can one examine and comprehend the uprooting and expulsion of more than 9 million people, rendering them displaced citizens inside Syria, or unwanted refugees seeking shelters in miserable tent cities, dying of cold and malnutrition in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

How is it possible to fathom the immense crime of destroying the civilizational and cultural legacy of one of the few countries in the world that contains some of the best treasures and monuments created over the centuries by the Roman, Byzantine, Christian and Muslim civilizations?

Who will rebuild Syria’s magnificent old Churches and Mosques? Not to mention the ancient cities of Homs and Hama. Who will hold accountable those new modern day Huns, be they those serving the Assad regime, or those killers belonging to the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who wrap themselves with the cloak of political Islam and who ransacked and partially destroyed the Umayyad Mosque, and the old Souks and Saladin’s Citadel in Aleppo, the mother of Syrian cities?

How is it possible for warring Muslims to bomb the graceful minarets and domes of that jewel of a Mosque named Khalid ibn al-Walid in Homs? Who will punish those Islamist marauders of al-Nusra who desecrated the churches and monasteries of Maalula and Saidnaya two famed towns where Aramaic, the language of Jesus is still spoken? The henchmen of al-Nusra took 13 nuns as hostages and released them after months of captivity for a ransom.

Even the formidable Krak des Chevaliers, the greatest castle ever build during the Crusades era, did not escape bombing by the Syrian air force and artillery.

A century after a massive famine swept the Eastern Mediterranean as a result of blockade and sinister machinations by both the European Allies and the Turkish army battling each other in the Levant during the First World War, killing hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians and leaving in its wake destitute and broken societies, man-made starvation has struck Syria once again. But this time it was not caused by competing foreign armies, but by a predatory Syrian regime.

For the first time in a hundred years Syrians, mostly civilians are dying of starvation, malnutrition, cold and diseases as a result of a deliberate policy by the Syrian regime of “using starvation as weapon of war” according to a report by the human rights group Amnesty International. The report documents the death of nearly 200 people in the besieged Yarmouk camp in the Damascus area because of “rampant malnutrition” and starvation.

Three years of slow death, of mourning and lamentations. Three years of empty Western threats to the regime, and lamentable promises to the ‘moderate’ opposition, of a red line to Assad drawn by a reluctant American president, who watched passively the small time boss of Damascus turn his red line into another green light to devastate his people.

Hisham Melhem

To escape that fate, many were forced to exist on a diet of weeds, cactus and dandelion leaves. Philip Luther a representative of Amnesty said “the harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialized in Yarmouk.”

While the scale of the deliberate starvation caused by the Assad regime cannot be compared with the famine of WWI, yet the witness accounts of the devastating effects of famine in Damascus circa 1916 and hunger in today’s Damascus are eerily similar; the bloated bellies and the emaciated bodies are identical if one hundred years apart.

Then people perished because of mortal diseases including typhus and malaria, today’s mortal diseases are numerous. In April 1917, the American council in Damascus reported that “starvation and famine [are] everywhere; the men either in military service or in hiding, and the women and children reduced to beggary.”

The Syrian Tamerlane

Those spared by diseases, were killed, or being killed by the thousands by conventional and chemical weapons. In recent months thousands were perished in besieged areas in Aleppo, Homs and the outskirts of Damascus by the crude but devastating barrel bombs. Laying siege and starving cities is as old as the history of conventional warfare and invasions. In medieval times invading armies would use catapults to throw projectiles and the remains of dead animals to terrorize the besieged and spread mortal diseases such as the plague.

Today, Bashar al-Assad is using a primitive weapon by current military standards; the barrel bombs thrown from Russian made helicopters against civilian targets. The famed Aleppo has been singled out as the city enduring the brunt of the regime’s terror. The success of Assad’s campaign of pulverizing Aleppo brings to the fore the success of Tamerlane, the last savage conqueror who visited similar destruction on Aleppo when he sacked the city 600 years ago.

Today, Syria as I and the Syrians knew it is no more. The country is unraveling at the seams. The regime began a diabolical scheme of bloody sectarian cleansing of Sunni areas, close to the Alawite heartland and later some radical Islamist matched his brutality with similar cleansing of Alawite and Christian areas.

The horrendous physical destruction, mostly done by the regime’s conventional army, has been matched by the devastation of communal relations. Rebuilding bridges and other structures requires money and technical means, however, restoring alienated souls requires decades of toil and efforts and cannot be empirically measured, nor is assured.

Three years of slow death, of mourning and lamentations. Three years of empty Western threats to the regime, and lamentable promises to the ‘moderate’ opposition, of a red line to Assad drawn by a reluctant American president, who watched passively the small time boss of Damascus turn his red line into another green light to devastate his people. The peaceful uprising was forced by the brutality of the regime to become militarized.

Not only were the democratic voices suffocated by the Assad regime early on, what is left of a modern and moderate movement for change is threatened of being hijacked by Islamists driven by visions and illusions that are totally alien to the majority of Syrians. The tragic truth is that the rising jihadists are toxic, and the non-Islamist leaders and spokespersons are pathetic.

The despair I feel when I think of Syria leads me at times to raise my fist in the air with otherworldly rage. Of thee Syria I write lamentations, and remember you as a love lost. Syria is dying slowly alone, and the world continues to wring its hands, stoically, in pain and in sorrow but unwilling to stop the tragedy; Syria is falling into the abyss and dragging with it Lebanon and maybe the whole neighborhood.

All the while the Syrian Tamerlane circa 2014 is brazenly planning to secure his throne for life, satisfied that he is the sole owner of the vast desolation he has created.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of 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 Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. 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 U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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