The survival of Syria

Reflecting on the future of the conflict in his country, poet Golan Haji says “Syrians want Syria to survive”. It is time for Western governments to look beyond their short-term interests in formulating a response to the Syrian crisis, says Zoe Holman

Zoe Holman
9 February 2013

What comes after the destruction of a country? A failed state? Warfare without end? Consignment to the dustbin of diplomatic history? While many Western governments have tracked the progress of the Syrian conflict along the conveyor belt of strife – from revolution to civil war to sectarian disintegration – it seems few have been willing to envision anything beyond the final point of demise.

Speaking at a public event in London last month, the exiled Syrian poet Golan Haji noted of his country that “Syria has been in the stream of history for two years. But it is now at the point where the stream ends.” His observation came the same week that UN-Arab League peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, issued the most dire descriptors of the conflict to have been uttered on the international stage thus far. According to Brahimi, Syria was falling apart “bit by bit” in a gradual descent into “hell”. His statement followed the discovery of more than 70 bodies in a river outside of Aleppo a few days earlier, evidence of yet another in a series of unfathomably vicious massacres.     

“Unprecedented levels of horror have been reached,” he told a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council. “The tragedy does not have an end."

It is doubtless that what began in March 2011 as a predominantly peaceful uprising has escalated into a state of brutal chaos. Conservative estimates by the UN suggest that at least 60,000 people have been killed over the course of its suppression, while one million are forecast to have fled the country by this June, in addition to the current 2.5 million internally displaced persons. In a grim fulfilment of President al-Assad's “bandits and armed gangs” propagandising, Syria is now beset by rival armed militias and everyday acts of looting and thuggery. Opposition groups and ngos have decried the lack of initiative from the international community in any of the realms of politics, military assistance or aid, despite ongoing campaigns from the UNHCR which says it is facing one of its most complex and dangerous humanitarian disasters. Circumstances are now considered so emergent that the opposition National Coalition was compelled in recent days to renege on its former stance and accept dialogue with the regime.

At the outset of the erstwhile 'Arab spring' in 2011, British foreign minister, William Hague described the events in the region as the most influential of the 21st century. The uprisings were deemed “epoch-making”; more consequential still than either 9/11 or the global financial crisis in shaping international relations in coming decades. It is with the extreme weight of these political transitions in mind that Britain, like other foreign governments, appears to have formulated its response to turmoil in the regional nexus Syria. Unlike Libya or Bahrain, the complex of strategic interests at stake, combined with the scale of atrocity has enabled neither quixotic acts of purported 'humanitarian intervention' nor the diplomatic turning of a blind-eye. Rather, Western governments have played their cards close to their chests, committing only to covert arms dealing and hedging strategic bets in a calculating game of wait-and-see.

Starkly offset by Britain's alacritous seizure of arms in Mali, the double-standards of this Western lack of appetite for involvement in Syria has not been lost on those from the region.  

“Every Syrian is extremely upset and frustrated about lack of support from the international community”, says Radwan Ziadeh, a Washington-based exile who has been at the forefront of political negotiations on the part of the Syrian opposition on the ground. “Never has a country seen such a disaster, with a regime targeting civilians in full view and the West just sitting by watching, like a spectator.”

Not only has Western inertia failed to halt the brutality, many see international lethargy as a contributing agent in propelling Syria to its current state of protracted chaos – one which may in the short-term suit the designs of key foreign onlookers, like Israel and its Western backers.

“Europe and America have used all sorts of excuses for not getting involved in Syria, for example, the lack of a united opposition,” says Ziadeh. “But really, the West has no interest in the Syrian uprising.”

“More importantly, leaving Syria very weak will service the interests of some neighbouring countries. The regime is destroying its army and draining its supply of fighter jets, and the country will need at least 20 to 25 years to rebuild. Having such a weakened Syria is preferable for Western strategy in the region.”

 In this ever-bleaker purview, slow-coming humanitarian aid from the international community – Britain this January became the second largest humanitarian donor to Syria – can only reflect a band-aid solution. As Ziadeh notes, “aid is good, but in the end, it is still keeping Assad in office to kill more Syrians. You are only dealing with the consequences, if you take action against the actual source of instability then the flow of refugees will be stalled.”

However tempting it may be for supporters of the Syrian uprising, blame for the intractability of the conflict cannot be laid squarely at the feet of reticent foreign governments. For the Assad regime has been as recalcitrant as it has bloody. The embattled President has appeared consistently determined to foil any attempt at a brokered political solution, refusing dialogue with opposition representatives deemed “puppets of the West”, while the armed forces seem committed to fighting themselves and the country, into the ground. Despite admissions that the army was overstretched and casualties escalating, Syrian Defence Minister issued a statement on national TV earlier this month in which he reiterated that the regime would yet prove to the world that it had “a strong army, a trained army, an army that cannot be broken."

It is in the context of national disintegration, fuelled by the miscellany of regional fingers-in-the-pie, al-Qaeda influence and growing threats of spill over, that the question of some heightened form of Western involvement in the long-term becomes one of how and when, rather than if. From its outset, the Syrian uprising was autonomous, expressly opposing any notion of Western military involvement. However, the escalation of the crisis has seen debates erupt over foreign intervention and No Fly Zones, driving a wedge amongst many in the Syrian opposition and its liberal supporters, while perpetuating the delusion that such action was either imminent or desired by Western governments.   

Western military intervention (ala Libya ) has never been on the cards for Syria. Disputes over this chimera have served only to legitimate regime propaganda, and detract from the urgency of forging calls for more realistic, practical and political measures. 

“Direct military intervention is just a red herring because it is not going to happen, and never was,” says British-Syrian author Robin Yassin-Kassab. “Assad likes people talking about it because it distracts from main issue, which is what the regime is doing. The opposition-in-exile put all their eggs in this basket, leftists were violently opposed to it, the regime was paranoid about it and everyone kept talking about foreign intervention as the great evil or the solution to all their problems, while all along it was a fiction.”

Along with elements of the opposition, Yassin-Kassab has advocated Western governments arming moderate Syrian rebels on the ground to counter both regime violence and sectarian militia groups. Such a call is perceived by many, particularly on the anti-imperial left, as controversial, but Yassin-Kassab believes it may ultimately be the best way of preserving the autonomy and unity of the crippled uprising.

“Because of the absence of weaponry on the part of the opposition, some extremist groups are becoming increasing relevant, mostly for practical rather than ideological reasons,” he says. “These groups have access to their own sources and because fanatics are fantastic fighters, people see them winning. They are capturing bases and they can offer a gun, so Syrians are joining up.”

However, as both Yassin-Kassab and Ziadeh note, more consistent and co-ordinated funding of the organised opposition by Western governments, instead of the current modus operandi of clandestine arming of select factions, would enable more cohesive and effective action by moderate opposition groups.
“The West is just going in and choosing their own people, which has taken away Syrian independence and hasn't worked militarily,” says Yassin-Kassab. “If the Syrian Coalition is properly funded, with arms channelled through links to Local Co-ordinations Committees, they could compete for hearts and minds with extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. Syrians would have a choice about who to back.”

Such action may be unpalatable to those wishing to resist Western interference in yet another Arab struggle for political freedom. However, many in the opposition have recognised that such immediate forms of intervention may be preferable to risking future, large-scale measures like US drones attacks against Islamists, or a repetition of the action now taking place in Mali. Proposals such as these highlight the problematic at the core of questions of Western involvement in grass-roots, democratic uprisings: where the motives of foreign governments are inevitably self-interested, if not malign, when and how can foreign assistance be justified? As was evident in Libya, and now underscored in Syria, where a crisis point is reached, calling for foreign backing may come down to a more expedient equation of the lesser-of-evils or an alliance of convenience. Options which boost the efficacy of what remains of the Syrian democratic uprising and the integrity of what remains of the nation itself must be advocated. While realistic descriptors of horror, strife and civil conflict in the international arena may be well-intended, simultaneously, they must not be allowed to overshadow our credibility in Syria's political aspirations and its ability to restore itself.

As Yassin-Kassab explains, “I am not against the use of the term civil war, but I can understand why a lot of people are offended by it. Once you say civil war, it sounds like you have two equal sides or some kind of proportionality, when the vast majority of people dying are being killed by the regime. It shows a serious lack of imagination if people can't see that there is still an uprising in Syria, or to expect that revolutions are not protracted and violent and messy.”

The ability to envisage something beyond short-term interests and the current conflict in Syria will be crucial for both Western governments and supporters of Syria if any form of constructive international action is to be mustered. 

Reflecting on the future of the conflict in his country, poet Golan Haji suggests that “Syrians want Syria to survive”. The apparent senselessness and infinitude of the calamity currently consuming Syria is evoked in the concluding lines of one of Haji's recent poems, 'Soldiers', from which he read in London: 

Where everything I write is an accusation that turns against me and threatens me
Where everyone who reads me kills me and says:
Doesn't this nonsense have an end?

Syrians have shown remarkable fortitude throughout the country's two-year descent into strife. Whether the country can be repaired will now rest largely on the equal determination of the international community to see Syria survive: a belief that the nonsense, indeed, will have an end. 

Robin Yassin-Kassab will be speaking at the openDemocracy conference Syria's peace: what, how, when? at London's South Bank, 12th February 2013.

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