Amid lull in fighting, a moment of hope for Syria
The years of starvation and attacks could not prevent Syrians from protesting against Assad’s disgraced regime during recent days
The years of starvation and chemical weapon attacks – including the worst massacre since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in Halabja – could not prevent Syrians from taking to the streets and protesting against Bashar al-Assad’s disgraced regime during recent days. The scenes of anti-regime demonstrations proved that the endless barrel bombings of civilian infrastructure, mass torture and what the UN has said is “extermination” of civilians has failed to kill the revolution.
Amid an unprecedented lull in fighting since the conflict erupted years ago, the tenuous cessation of hostilities agreement implemented on February 27th has been marred by a number of violations but has undoubtedly and significantly stemmed the bloodshed. In what was reminiscent of 2011 – the period of activism before the country descended into hell – demonstrators gathered across cities in peaceful protest.
Writer Iyad el-Baghdadi translated a tweet from Arabic to English, indicating that no less than 104 protests took place against the regime in Syria on March 4th alone. “Each and every one of these protests raised nothing but the revolution's flag. No black flags, no chants for any group other than FSA,” he noted.
Such resilience is deeply touching and indicative of what has been true since the most embryonic stages of the revolution: Assad must go. To note, stories of heroism are not difficult to come by in Syria, with White Helmet workers rushing toward the injured at a freshly bombarded site – perhaps a market, a hospital or a school – or journalists diligently tracking both Assad and ISIS atrocities against Syrians, braving the threat that both barbaric factions represent to themselves and their loved ones. Enduring Assad’s brutal rule as well as the rise of nefarious actors and immediately protesting at the first opportunity - what remarkable resolve.
The renewed protests against the regime come at a pivotal moment in the Syrian conflict. If the calls for Assad to step down have not been silenced after five years of war they never will beBrooklyn Middleton
The renewed protests against the regime come at a pivotal moment in the Syrian conflict. If the calls for Assad to step down have not been silenced after five years of war they never will be. Meanwhile, the worst refugee crisis since World War II continues to spiral out of control, with UNICEF officials confirming that the vast majority of people fleeing to Europe are women and children. As the West deals with refugee camps on their soil, the uncomfortable truth that the influxes of Syrian refugees will not be stopped unless Assad steps down is becoming all the more evident.
In October 2015, a survey issued to German refugees showed that nearly 70 percent said they fled Syria because of the Assad regime. Such a point is one that cannot continue to be ignored; the longer the Assad regime stays in power, the worse the refugee crisis will become. Months ago, in an interview with Reuters, United Nations refugee chief Antonio Guterres said that it is, “only when the poor enter the halls of the rich, do the rich notice that the poor exist.” As haunting images and reports of life inside Greece and France’s tent cities continue to surface - and as Balkan states lock up their borders - such a quote rings so very true.
At the same time, the security situation in Syria may be on the brink of drastically changing. In what was a shocking announcement, Russia has reportedly indicated it will begin withdrawing its forces from the country on March 15. According to Russian media, President Vladimir Putin reportedly confirmed his troops would pull out, with the exception of military personnel that will remain at the naval base in Tartus and the airbase near Latakia. Putin claimed that “the tasks set to the defense ministry are generally fulfilled.”
While it is too soon to assess whether such a public confirmation is actually indicative of a major shift on the ground, any scaling down of Russia’s aerial campaign is a positive development. Moreover, Moscow’s sudden plans to withdraw can be marked as a win for the opposition. The spokesman for Syria’s High Negotiations Committee responded to the reports by saying that, “Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind, but the point is he has no right to be in our country in the first place. Just go.”
There is no reason to immediately assess that Russia will do precisely what it is saying it will. After all, Putin repeatedly claimed the purpose of Moscow’s aerial campaign in Syria was to defeat ISIS, while the majority of airstrikes then reportedly targeted other factions opposed to the regime. But nonetheless, the report came as relevant parties sat down once again for negotiations in Geneva. With Russia backing down, the opposition is entering talks with an upper hand.
Negotiations in Geneva are likely to hit the same stalemate that they have in the past, with Assad refusing to step down and the opposition rightly refusing to allow a regime guilty of multiple war crimes to remain in power. That said, the cessation of hostilities agreement has set a solid foundation for talks that previous attempts at negotiations lacked and all efforts must be made to ensure that this bloody fifth anniversary is the last.
Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst currently based in New York City. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as Bashar al-Assad's continued crimes against his own people. She recently finished her MA thesis on Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, completing her Master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.