And so it begins. The whitewashing and normalization of one of the greatest mass murders of our time has began in earnest. After 600,000 dead and 6 million displaced, nations who previously held the explicit policy of removing Bashar al-Assad and his homicidal regime are now deliberating how to reopen their embassies.
A British diplomat could not have been clearer when he clarified how UK policy of denying Assad legitimacy had been replaced with “pragmatic realism.” There is even discussion of how the $400 billion required for reconstruction should be raised and how the EU could use Russia as a conduit to help refugees return.
But make no mistake. Syrians will not be returning to Syria anytime soon as long as the regime that slaughtered their families remains in place. A key test of normalization will be whether Syrian diplomats attend the Arab Economic Summit next month in Beirut.
This will be seen as laying the groundwork for reintegration into The Arab League - from which Syria was expelled – and their annual summit in Tunis in March.
What may soon be forgotten among the endless reports and discussions on post-war reconstruction is why this conflict started seven years ago. President Assad, like his father before him, presided over a Ba’athist regime that was as repressive as anything in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, or Iraq under Saddam Hussain.
Whoever was thought to be an “enemy of the state” would be routinely rounded up, imprisoned and tortured. And if any of them resisted being “re-educated”, they would eventually be simply killed.
It was against this kind of government that people rose up in Syria during the heady days of the Arab Spring. And what was interesting in those early days is that even though the government was dominated by the Alawite Shi’ite sect, the uprising was not originally sectarian.
Russia in particular has benefited immensely from the instability caused by the refugee flow out of Syria and into Turkey and EuropeDr. Azeem Ibrahim
ISIS on the scene
The uprising was a coming together of virtually all elements of Syrian society, including many dissidents from the Syrian Army and other political insiders. It was only later that the conflict took a decidedly sectarian character when ISIS appeared on the scene, and Iranian militias and Hezbollah also joined the fray.
And if that was the Assad government then, we can only imagine what it will be like after it has been hardened by seven years of bitter, sectarian Civil War. Or perhaps not much imagination is required at all.
After all, we have seen the government’s attitude towards civilians throughout this conflict, in their use of chemical weapons against their own people, cluster munitions, systematic bombing of hospitals and other humanitarian relief agencies, and widespread use of starvation siege tactics.
In other words, even as the rebels might finally succumb and “peace” will be declared, we have every reason to expect that Assad’s government will continue to wage war against the civilian populations who supported the rebellion to punish them. That war may not be as visible as the constant shelling of hospitals in urban centres, but it will be every bit as real as the networks of secret police prisons from before the war.
What is more, we must not neglect the role of Assad’s allies in this conflict, like Iran and Russia. Russia in particular has benefited immensely from the instability caused by the refugee flow out of Syria and into Turkey and Europe.
Even as Putin may want the conflict to settle down so he can wind down his military involvement to keep down costs, he has every reason to want the refugee flow into Europe to continue.
So both Assad and his key ally, Putin, have every interest to keep Syria a humanitarian hell and hopefully displace as many opponents of the regime from the country, while none of their allies are adversely affected by this – with the possible exception of Lebanon which is, in any case, a client state of Syria and does not get to have much of say in the matter.
And, let us not forget, they are the two players that have the greatest amount of control over the outcome of the conflict. So long as that remains the case, and both their respective interests would be best served by continuing the abuse of the Syrian people, there is no reason to believe that the humanitarian crisis is going to get any better.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.
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