Civil society always a target in Syria’s proxy and civil wars
Syria is a multi-conflict zone. It is an uprising against a repressive regime, but also a civil war and a proxy war.
The by-line for the latest Friends of Syria summit in London last week might as well have been: Desperately seeking Syria strategy. None was found; politically they can conjure up no solution; militarily there is no agreed upon option and on aid, they cannot deliver.
In a vain attempt to avoid complete embarrassment, Ministers spewed out their usual anti-regime platitudes, promised to "redouble efforts" and offered tokenistic crumbs of support to the Syrian National Coalition. There were some further aid pledges that sadly barely cover the weekly costs of providing Syrian refugees basic assistance. United States Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed with a straight face: “today in one unified voice we made it clear that we remain committed, even more so, to taking steps that could in fact make a difference.”
The most devastating man-made disaster in the 21st century has stomped the world’s major powers. The international system has no answers to such a complex conflict straightjacketed by looking through the prism of 20th century inter-state conflicts and a limited understanding of both Syria and the region.
Myths and lazy assumptions
More than three years into the uprising, the media and political discourse in both the West and even in the Arab world is replete with myths and lazy assumptions.
Syria is a multi-conflict zone. It is an uprising against a repressive regime, but also a civil war and a proxy warChris Doyle
Assad was meant to get with the times and just topple over like Ben Ali and Mubarak, head off to exile in Saudi Arabia or Siberia. Leaders queued up to assert confidently that Assad’s days were numbered, although none dared to name a date. Few would now bet against Bashar not outlasting those who forecast his demise.
On top of that is the myopic view that Assad’s departure would automatically solve all Syria’s issues, as welcome as it might be. Endless debates occur on Syria’s future, distilled into this single question ignoring the future nature of the state, reconciliation and reconstruction.
Events in Syria are seen as a single conflict, portrayed crudely between two sides, pro or anti regime, or increasingly, the regime versus hard-line Islamists.
Syria is a multi-conflict zone. It is an uprising against a repressive regime, but also a civil war and a proxy war. Syria is the red-hot nuclear core of two cold wars, the U.S.-Russian and the Saudi-Iranian that contaminates itself and all its neighbors.
One of the conflicts -the conflict of 2011- may have already been lost. This mass uprising of hundreds of thousands of Syrians from all walks of life demanding freedom, rights and dignity. It was a collective cri de coeur of a population who had had enough. It was largely non-violent, peaceful, non-sectarian and driven by Syrians for Syria. It was the single biggest threat the Assad regime had ever faced in 40 years. Its forces, its thugs had never had to handle five protesters let alone hundreds of thousands. The regime was losing at home and abroad. It was one of the most impressive civic actions to take place that defined itself not just in opposition to the Assad regime but also in terms of the free Syria they aspired to. The beating heart of this movement has gone into hibernation, most unwilling to take up arms, in exile or diverted into keeping their communities alive.
Civil society was a threat that had to be crushed. Civilians became the target. The protesters were seen as far more dangerous than armed fighters. Consequently, civilians have been collectively punished for their temerity. Human rights activists were detained, tortured, even killed. Many remain in detention.
This was the ambition of not just the Assad regime but every other counter-revolutionary force in the region. All the regional wannabee hegemons involved in Syria’s proxy wars, as well as Russia and China, had no desire to see popular civilian protests prevail in Syria as well as elsewhere. The "Arab Spring" had to be not just stopped but crushed with the blood of Syrians. The arming of the uprising and the militarization of the conflict fitted neatly with the regime’s plans but also many of these external players. The extreme Islamist groups were supported not just because the secular armed groups were seen as weak but because they were the antidote to the democratic pluralist forces the external players feared most. This mafia regime needed, and so cultivated, an armed opposition in its own image. It needed an exclusivist, radicalized, sectarian, rejectionist, power-seeking collection of fighting groups.
The conduct of the war evolved to suit these ambitions. In common with the Balkans and other conflicts, there have been few direct battles. The regime and some other armed actors have attempted to control territory using methods of mass fear to cleanse cities and towns of civilians who would not support them or did not belong to their identity groups. The regime did this by collective repression, rape, mass bombing of urban areas and through siege and starvation. Lacking enough boots on the ground to fight street to street, it held entire communities collectively responsible. Hardline Islamist groups particularly ISIS did so through the harshest intolerant form of pseudo-sharia law, even involving crucifixion of their opponents.
Regime and hardline Islamist groups barely clash directly but focus their energies on terrorizing civilian populations in strategic urban areas. Aleppo and has endured the worst of this. Barrel bombing opposition areas of Aleppo are in the words of the Times journalist Anthony Loyd “pancaking houses into flatpacked mounds of rubble.” Supposedly in response, Jabhat al-Nusra at the beginning of May cut the water supply to the city, punishing hundreds of thousands.
Civilians are further terrorized by the war economy driven by mafia gangs, kidnappers and smugglers. Soldiers’ salaries have dropped in exchange for the right to pillage, loot and rape together with the various Shabiha gangs.
The displacement of nearly half of Syria’s population was not a consequence of the conflict or some unfortunate side effect. It became a war aim, a core part of the strategy. It is estimated that around 70 percent of Aleppo’s population has fled. The regime is content to see such depopulation and the flight of its opponents, even more so as they become a burden on the donor community.
What is so startling is that the so-called democratic powers who, one hopes have the most interest in backing civil society and are supporters of a pluralist inclusive Syria, have done so little to help them. They were excluded from the Geneva II talks this year. Whatever happens militarily, the solution has to be based on rekindling those forces of 2011 and helping them retake center stage. It is time for Syrian civilians to have a say in the future of their country.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
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