Ten years of international failure in Syria
Conflicts and wars come in many forms in the 21st century but most types have been on display over the past 10 long years in Syria. The conflict there started as peaceful protests that were met with brutal repression, evolved into an armed uprising backed by regional powers on all sides, and became a fully fledged international one involving many, including the two superpowers.
Syrians have suffered from civil conflicts, sectarian and ethnic cleansing, urban siege, proxy wars, attritional aerial bombardments, Islamist extremism and chemical weapons. More than half a million Syrians met their ends at the hands of both the crudest weapons and some of the most lethal known to man.
None of this occurred in the shadows. This was not a conflict that for whatever reason the media barely covered, as is currently happening in Tigray, in Ethiopia. These were conflicts recorded in extraordinary and often graphic detail, from the earliest protests uploaded onto social networks to the 53,000 photos provided by the military police photographer, codenamed Caesar, showing the industrial torture in Bashar Assad’s prisons. Journalists, diplomats and international civil society were witnesses to major, unspeakable crimes. The mountains of rubble in urban centers bombed from above are a testament to the savage and indiscriminate bombardment by Russian and Syrian regime planes. International commissions have investigated human rights abuses from chemical weapons use. Islamist extremists belonging to Daesh and Al-Qaeda were only too happy to market their own form of carnage on high-quality video productions.
The world therefore cannot pretend it did not know. It cannot be allowed to indulge in collective amnesia or claim it was not its fault. Yes, the Syrian regime and its backers do bear primary responsibility by any fair measure of blame but this does not excuse other actors.
All too easily the world turned a blind eye to the excesses of the Assad regime prior to 2011. After the brief window of the so-called Damascus Spring, few said anything as these delicate shoots of political life were snuffed out. Little was said also about Syria’s chemical weapons stock. The CIA knew the regime had a major chemical weapons arsenal as it ran a mole deep inside the regime’s program for 14 years; 32 of 38 documented cases of chemical weapons use since the start of the Syrian conflict can be attributed to Syrian government forces.
One of the most deadly mistakes was in August 2011. President Barack Obama called on Assad to “step aside,” backed almost immediately by Britain, France and Germany. A welcome rhetorical gesture, maybe, but it encouraged Assad’s opponents to believe the US would have their backs when Obama and others knew they had no desire to get sucked into another Middle Eastern quagmire. Some of Syria’s external opposition played into this too, naively or knowingly propagating this view, when it was Syrians inside the country who would pay the price. In the end Russia and Iran have proved time and time again to be far more dedicated to keeping the regime in power than the US and the so-called friends of Syria were in backing the opposition. The US-European failure to anticipate the Russian military intervention in 2015 showed how little they understood the dynamics at play.
The US, Turkey, and others also armed the opposition to an extent. It was the CIA’s largest arm-and-equip program in decades. They sent enough weapons to keep the conflict going but never enough to finish it. Opposition fighters never got the caliber of weapons needed to remove the regime, and those weapons that did arrive often landed up in the hands of Daesh or Al-Qaeda. Disenchantment with the US and European powers led many to join the more extreme Islamist groups.
The Syrian opposition, instead of being a coherent body, was fractured, and pulled apart by myriad outside backers. The incessant squabbling was evidence of these competing regional ambitions.
After the major powers encouraged and stoked the conflicts, many Syrians might have hoped that as refugees they would be welcomed by those countries. For a few months this was the case. Europe located a temporary conscience, and to her great credit Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors and welcomed Syrians as new Germans. The same could not be said for many other European countries, with Hungary leading the charge to build barbed wire fences. The Trump administration stopped taking in any Syrian refugees. Instead, most of the 5.6 million refugees languish in camps and communities in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, their futures as bleak as the winter storms that ravage their shacks.
For the past five years or so, Syria has played host to fighters and planes from all over the world. One Syrian friend grimly joked, “Is there no country that does not want to bomb us?” It is estimated that fighters from 110 countries joined Daesh. Today, Russian, Iranian, American and Turkish forces dominate on the ground alongside militia forces from Hizbollah, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the skies, anti-Daesh planes have bombed Syrian cities. The aerial campaign to retake Raqqa damaged or destroyed up to 80 percent of the buildings there.
As things stand, the world watches and does nothing, assuming that the conflict is frozen. The lines of control in some ways are frozen but the conflict dynamics are not. The regime and Russia persist in bombing Idlib, where on the ground Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, the effective Al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria, faces protests against its medieval rule. Turkey still occupies large chunks of northern Syria with no indication of when its forces will leave. In the areas around Raqqa, Syrian Arabs who make up the majority resent the corrupt rule of Kurdish forces. In this area, either an Arab-Kurdish war will erupt or Daesh will return in some form.
As things stand, the world watches and does nothing, assuming that the conflict is frozen.
Syrians face today the harshest conditions of these 10 years owing to the war, the financial catastrophe and the pandemic. No major donor will fund reconstruction in Syria with the status quo intact. Syrians are not looking for the light at the end of the tunnel but wondering when they will hit the bottom of the dark pit they have been thrown into.
The Syrian crisis has been, and remains, a complete and utter international and regional failure. The international community overpromised and underdelivered. Collectively we have failed the Syrian people in every possible imaginable way. Worse, after 10 years none of the major powers gives the slightest indication, not least the incoming Biden administration, that they intend to do anything to reverse this or make up for this.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech