Every day for the last five years there have been reports of the systematic devastation that has been wreaked upon Syria, so much so that our benumbed minds can now barely register the full scale of the tragedy.
Just 4,000 km from Delhi, half a million Syrians have been killed in the past five years, about five million are now refugees abroad, while over six million in the nation of 17 million are displaced – a third of them are children.
Syria – reflecting the world’s Jewish, Christian and Islamic civilisations – has become a ruined caricature of its former glory, while its citizens, neighbours and remote powers tear at its carcass, so that every vestige of its identity is extinguished.
Yet, only occasionally is the world’s conscience shaken by an image that captures the tragic dimensions of this sanguineous theatre. First, there was three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on the Mediterranean beach of Bodrum in Turkey, where he had drowned while fleeing with his family to the safety of the European shores.
More recently, we have seen the picture of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh – covered in dust and blood – sitting quietly in an ambulance in Aleppo, too stunned to weep for himself or his country. But all too soon these images fade away, until a few weeks later the evidence of a new atrocity floats before our tired eyes.
Regime change in Syria
With so much destruction around us, it is difficult to recall that just six years ago the Saudi king and the Syrian president were close friends. In January 2010, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reciprocated the visit of the monarch to his capital and came to Riyadh. The two then travelled together to Lebanon, where their rival interests had estranged them for some years, but these interests were now pushed back into irrelevance in the new spirit of camaraderie.
This, however, ended abruptly. When challenged by the Arab Spring, the Kingdom made Syria the battle-ground in order to remove the president and thus restore the balance of power, vis-a-vis Iran, that had tilted against Saudi Arabia with the fall of its strategic partner Hosni Mubarak and the demand for “reform” in Bahrain – a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) family and a neighbour at its border.
The Kingdom hoped that after regime change in Syria, it would sever its ties with Iran and join the Arab mainstream as a strategic ally, so that balance would once again be restored in the region and Iran’s hegemonic ambitions would be controlled.
However, nothing went as planned. The US – having seen the consequences of its military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where jihadis had been the principal beneficiaries of regime change, refused to enter the Syrian skies with its aircraft and bomb the Assad regime out of existence.
This has left Saudi Arabia and its allies promoting a grinding ground war made of hundreds of armed militia of different sizes and ideological persuasions, unreliable regional allies and the even more unreliable big powers – the US and Russia – that have made Syria into one more theatre in their global competition as they seek to reshape world order to their advantage.
Forces in contention
The wide variety of parties in contention in Syria has ensured that the conflict has several fronts, with different groups pursuing different – even competing – interests. The Assad regime is being backed by the Hezbollah from Lebanon, elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, some Shia militia from Iraq, and since September of last year, Russian aircraft, armour and surveillance support that has tilted the conflict in Assad’s favour.
Ranged against the Assad government are numerous militia, some of whom are from the “secular” Free Syrian Army (FSA), while others are Salafi in orientation. Both of these fighting forces are backed by Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, with support from Turkey and Jordan, thus imparting a sectarian character to the contention. They are being increasingly backed by the US, which is seeking to balance the Russian presence. Other fighters in the country are the Syrian Kurds, who, taking advantage of the chaos, are fighting to carve out an autonomous enclave across the Syria-Turkish border – their own Rojava or Western Kurdistan.
The most lethal force in Syria, however, is that of the jihadis – the Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to al Qaida, and the ISIS, based at the Syrian town of Raqqa, which controls territory across the Iraq-Syria border that last year was about the size of the United Kingdom and had a population of about six-nine million. But, there are no neat divisions among the fighting groups for there is considerable cross-militia cooperation amongst them.
The US has declared the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra as “terrorist” organisations. The latter, however, is an associate of the Saudi-sponsored Salafi militia, which the Kingdom has promoted as “moderate” groups opposing the Assad regime, and therefore, are likely candidates to participate in a post-Assad political process.
But, for Assad and his allies, all the elements ranged against him are “terrorists” and legitimate targets for assault – a view that is wholeheartedly shared by Russia.
The two sides are not just divided on the battlefield, they also strongly disagree about the future political shape of Syria. While Assad sees himself as an indispensable part of any arrangement that emerges after the conflict, the opposition is united in rejecting any role for him in the Syrian order, a divide that has made any peace process impossible. Hence, the fighting continues.
The complex tapestry of the Syrian conflict has witnessed two developments from the end of August that have further complicated the scenario. The first was the direct entry of Turkish troops into Syria, ostensibly to fight “terrorists,” but more importantly, to divest the Kurds of their battlefield gains that were seen to be threatening crucial Turkish interests.
The Turkish incursion occurred just after the Kurds had captured Manjib on the Syria-Turkish border and seemed poised to take Jarablus as well, thus creating a solid enclave all along the border, which, in Turkish eyes, would provide a safe haven for Turkey’s own dissident Kurds.
Turkey was concerned that territorial gains of the Syrian Kurds would seamlessly link the Kurdish lands in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, thus laying the basis for an eventual independent homeland of the united Kurdish people.
The second development in Syria was the failure of the “truce” sponsored by the US and Russia that was to take effect from September 12. The US secretary of state announced that if the truce held for a week, Russia and the US would establish a joint implementation centre to coordinate attacks on ISIS and other designated terrorist groups, provide humanitarian assistance to the beleaguered towns and re-commence discussions on the political future of the country. Terrorist groups, ISIS and the Jabhat al-Nusra, were not a part of the truce.
In the event, no party seems to have adhered to the terms of the ceasefire.
Government forces – backed by Russian aircraft – re-doubled their attacks on Aleppo against “moderate” forces, while the US launched a devastating attack on the Syrian national army at Deir al-Zor – in which 84 officers and men were killed – an operation that the US said had been a “mistake”.
The US then accused Russia of having attacked a convoy carrying humanitarian supplies to Aleppo. The week-long truce passed away quietly on September 19, with no effort by any party to renew it.
The principal target for the Assad government now is the capture of Aleppo. Syria’s second town after Damascus and its economic capital, Aleppo had a pre-war population of two million, which has now been reduced to 300,000. Almost all its buildings have been destroyed, while its people face starvation. Antagonistic groups control different parts of this town. The rebels dominate the east while the government forces control the west and the surrounding rural region is with diverse rebels in the west and southwest. The Kurds are in the northwest and the ISIS is in the northeast.
There is much overlapping among these groups. For instance, FSA elements are located with the Salafi groups – particularly the Jaish al-Fatah coalition. The situation is further complicated by the presence of several foreign jihadi fighters.
According to western observers, Russian aircraft are hitting civilian neighbourhoods with a variety of lethal bombs, including possibly the “bunker buster,” and have perhaps killed about 300 people. At a special UN Security Council session to discuss Syria, the US described Russian attacks as “not counter-terrorism, but barbarism”.
The Syrian scenario consists deep ethnic, doctrinal, sectarian and political divisions between national, regional and global powers, that provide no spaces for accommodation. The principal interest of the Salafi militia and their GCC sponsors is regime change, which is more important for them than combatting jihadi forces. In fact, in their battles, they are not averse to fighting alongside the jihadis, postponing the confrontation with them to after Assad has been removed.
As events in Syria during the week-long “truce” have revealed, the Salafi militia, in fact, showed no interest in abandoning the Jabhat al-Nusra (now calling itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham after formally delinking itself from al Qaida), thus making it impossible for the US to separate the “moderates” from the “terrorists”.
These groups came together with Jabhat al-Nusra in spite of a letter from the state department official Michael Ratney warning them of “severe consequences” if they did not abandon their links with the jihadi outfit.
The Kurds on the other hand give priority to liberating their “Rojava” and are less interested in fighting the ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra. These aspirations have put them in direct confrontation with the Turks. The latter have entered the Syrian military theatre to curb Kurdish ambitions – allying with a motley group of FSA elements and Turkey-based Turcoman fighters – to force the Kurds to vacate all the territory west of the Euphrates so that Kurdish territories are not contiguously aligned.
Turkey is thus shaping the 90-km long and 15-km deep “safe-zone” at the Turkey-Syria border that it has been seeking for over two years. In fact, Turkey views the Kurdish challenge so seriously that it has broken ranks with its US and Saudi allies and reached out to Russia and Iran, and has even indicated that it accepts Assad’s rule “for now”.
Turkey has built up reasonably cordial ties with Iran since both countries are opposed to Kurdish military successes in Syria and dreams of a united Kurdish homeland. But, if Turkey were to continue its thrust and reach 30-35 km into Syria to takeover the strategically important town of al-Bab from the ISIS – as it has been threatening to do – both Iran and Russia are likely to oppose it, for neither would like to see the emergence of a new and formidable power player in Syria.
For Saudi Arabia, its main interest is to block Iran’s increasing regional influence by wrenching Syria from its embrace. This is such an overwhelming concern that it is hardly troubled about the fact that by allying itself with jihadi forces, it is strengthening the very elements that will turn their weaponry against it when Assad is removed. The jihadis are certainly not likely to meekly vacate Syria once the Assad regime is overthrown. They will, in fact, seek to dominate the new political order.
The US continues to be buffeted by the contradictory interests of its allies, while also contending with the jihadi forces and the burgeoning ambitions of the Russians. A particularly serious embarrassment for the Americans was the eviction of its special forces from the town of al-Rai by FSA elements affiliated with the Turkish forces, who taunted the American servicemen as “infidels” in Arabic. Observers see in this episode a clear Turkish message to the US that it should not interfere with Turkish interests in north Syria.
In fact, several Arab commentators believe that confronting Russian influence is the most important US concern in Syria, so much so that the lead role in that country has already passed on from the state department to the more aggressive Pentagon, which, in a show of aggression, deliberately ordered the killing of the Syrian soldiers at Deir al-Zor to scuttle the truce.
Many of them see in the US policy in Syria a repeat of its approach in Afghanistan, when it bled the Russians with the Mujahideen forces. Now, the coming together of several jihadi groups in Syria – including some from the FSA – reflects the same Mujahideen that defeated the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
A writer in the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai al-Aam, Elia Mighnayer, said that graphically, the US interest was “to drown Russia in Middle Eastern quagmires and haemorrhage Iran and Hezbollah as well”.
In the absence of any political settlement in the near future, there is already talk among commentators of a de facto partition of Syria. Mighnayer believes that Assad and the Russians would be happy to control the “useful” Syria, consisting of the major towns of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Latakia and Tartous, even if it meant the loss of rich agricultural land and oil-producing areas. Assad on the other hand, has vowed to regain all Syrian territory and unite it under his rule, an aspiration echoed by Russia and Iran.
The Lebanese writer Yahya Dabouq, has noted that neither a military nor a political solution is possible in Syria and astutely concludes: “The irony is that neither side can, wants to, or is strong enough to surrender to the other side.”
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.