‘Can I ask you a question?’ said the person I was interviewing on a recent trip to southern Turkey. He had owned a water pump store in northern Syria. He had left with his family because of the constant shelling and bombardment including the use of white phosphorus. Now he was part of a self-organised Syrian group providing relief to refugees not living in camps in the area and representing their voices. ‘This is the holocaust’ he said ‘This is the First World War. Why is no-one in Europe doing anything?
‘Can I ask you a question?’ said the person I was interviewing on a recent trip to southern Turkey. He had owned a water pump store in northern Syria. He had left with his family because of the constant shelling and bombardment including the use of white phosphorus. Now he was part of a self-organised Syrian group providing relief to refugees not living in camps in the area and representing their voices. ‘This is the holocaust’ he said ‘This is the First World War. Why is no-one in Europe doing anything? Can you explain it?’
It was a question I asked myself repeatedly during the visit. According to the latest UNHCR figures, there are some 1.3 million Syrian refugees of which 300,000 are in southern Turkey. The Turkish authorities estimate some 190,000 refugees in camps in southern Turkey and a similar number outside the camps. They expect a million refugees by the end of the year if the situation does not change. Some 70,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands tortured in detention and internally displaced.
Azaz Refugee Camp on the Syrian Turkey Border. Demotix/Thomas Rassloff. All rights reserved.
The war in Syria began in March 2011 when the regime began shooting at peaceful protestors. Some Syrians began shooting back. Groups of armed men began to accompany protests to protect them from attacks by the regime security forces and Shabbiha militia. Some were defectors from the Syrian army who refused to fire on protestors. That is how the first units of the Free Syrian Army were formed. They were joined by civilians taking up arms to defend their families, jihadist groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra who include both Syrians and foreign jihadists especially from Iraq, Kurdish groups, and criminals released from gaol by the regime.
The opposition is said to be fragmented since the Free Syrian Army consist of independent self-organised brigades alongside these various armed actors. There are also accusations of sectarianism and jihadism. The regime, which relies on terrifying its Alawite base into believing the opposition are Sunni extremists intent on massacring Alawites, has deliberately attempted to foment sectarian violence, making use of violent pro-regime militias known as Shabbiha to attack Sunni communities. And it has also tried to court the Kurdish political parties.
There have been sectarian incidents but the opposition includes all ethnic and religious groups. The western press often wrongly portray Syria in sectarian terms despite the long cosmopolitan tradition, as indeed they did in Iraq. Jabhat Al Nusra, the jihadist group, operates together with the FSA and is gaining adherents reportedly because it is more efficient as a fighting force and more effective at distributing humanitarian assistance. There are also cases in which Kurdish groups who sided with the regime clashed with the FSA. The opposition outside Syria formed itself into the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in November 2012 and includes a range of different groups, many of whom disagree with each other, replacing the Syrian National Council; it has only loose links with the local coordinating committees increasingly replaced by local administrative councils inside Syria.
The violence has been compounded by the involvement of outside states - including Iran and Russia as well as Hezbollah on the side of the regime and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and western powers who relate to often different opposition groups. Syrians talk about a proxy war or a foreign conspiracy.
Outside the main towns, Damascus and Aleppo, where fierce fighting continues, the regime has relinquished control over large parts of the country. Local administrative councils have been established composed of members of the opposition and prominent local citizens in order to provide services, including water and electricity, food distribution, health and education, garbage collection and local security. But the regime is pursuing a scorched earth policy. These areas are subject to constant bombardment, shelling and missile attacks. Western countries claim to have credible evidence that the nerve gas Sarin has been used. The civilian population and the economic infrastructure is directly targeted. Salaries to government employees have been halted.
There are very few humanitarian agencies operating in the non-government controlled areas. There are some Islamic agencies – United Moslem, IHH (the Turkish group that organised the Gaza flotilla), and Children in Deen for example. I met three volunteers from Birmingham and Manchester who were working with these groups. The only other international NGO working inside the non-government controlled areas is MSF. MSF has organised a field hospital and is trying to organise a programme of measles vaccinations. The head of their emergency unit explained it was a ‘drop in the ocean.’ Shockingly, ECHO, the EU humanitarian agency does not provide humanitarian assistance inside Syria and this explains the absence of many European NGOs. There has only been one UN convoy when a ceasefire was organised between the Government and the FSA.
Raqqa representatives seek assistance
I met with members of the local administrative council of Raqqa, a town just inside the Turkish border. They had come to Turkey to seek assistance. Their council has representatives from all ethnic and religious groups in the town including Kurds and Armenians and also includes a number of women. They also have one member from Al Nusra, the jihadist organisation, but they insisted that Al Nusra must nominate an academic or someone of similar standing. The coordinator of the Council is someone who sees himself as part of the opposition committed to non-violence. They have organised a brigade of the Free Syrian army to keep order ( the word they used was amana - an Arabic word that means safety without any of the connotations relating to security forces of the word ‘security’). As a result they have avoided the looting and crime that has taken place in many other areas.
In addition to the local population, there are 50,000 IDPs in Raqqa. Some 450 people have been killed directly and indirectly as a result of bombardment. The economy has been destroyed. Raqqa depended on agriculture and state salaries. The regime destroyed the electricity infrastructure, which, in turn, has destroyed agriculture because the irrigation system depends on electricity. State salaries were halted two months ago. There have been some protests recently in favour of going back to the regime. Without outside assistance, we were told, people will be forced to leave the country or to return to the regime.
One person I interviewed argued that the opposition can never win militarily. He argued that the opposition can never match the regime’s military force and the ‘revolution is bound to fail’ if attacks on the liberated areas continued. This does not mean the restoration of government control. Rather the prospect is long-term persistent conflict among fragmented fighting groups – a zone of insecurity that links up with other parts of the Middle East and involves a range of global actors. It would be a kind of new World War I.
So why is nothing being done to help people in the non-government controlled areas? The answer, I think, has to do with the legacy of the War on Terror and the way the situation in Syria has been framed. The war in Syria has been variously described as a revolution, as jihadist/terrorist violence or as a massive violation of human rights. Western governments interpret the war as a revolution and their solution is arming the rebels. At the same time they are reluctant to intervene directly because they fear being dragged into a new war after the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. By the same token, the western left fear another imperialist military intervention. Governments like Russia and China fear terrorism/ jihadism/ sectarianism and put the emphasis on ‘order’ and ‘stability’ - though of course they probably fear that the same could happen to them if the rebels were allowed to succeed. For Iran and Hizbollah or for Saudi Arabia this is the Sunni/Shi’ia front – the new war for the soul of the Middle East.
Political regime change
What is missing is any serious discussion about the plight of the Syrian people. The polarising effect of the War on Terror has meant that the human rights constituency, those who argue for interpreting what is happening as a massive violation of human rights are increasingly marginalised. The west has argued that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that must not be crossed – ‘a game changer’. If it turns out that this red line has been crossed, then any intervention will be a geo-political intervention against the Assad regime. The likely response is to arm the rebels rather than to intervene to protect ordinary people. The western aim would be to help the rebels overthrow the regime because the regime represents a threat to the west as a consequence of its possession and use of weapons of mass destruction. This is not to oppose regime change. The point is rather that whether or not the regime has used chemical weapons, there should be intervention because of the regime’s brutality towards its own people. The priority is to save lives and to reduce the violence. Regime change needs to come about politically not militarily. In a situation free of fear, Syrians would choose a different way of governing themselves.
What is needed is a humanitarian intervention to protect the Syrian people. How such an intervention is framed is important because it dictates what actually happens. Geo-political interventions, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, are very different from humanitarian interventions. Humanitarian interventions are, first and foremost, about protecting people not only in terms of aims but also in terms of methods.
So what would a humanitarian strategy that focused on the civilian population involve? First, there needs to be a focus on empowering and strengthening local administrative councils. They need assistance with the provision of services, including water and electricity, health and education, local security, as well as the distribution of essentials including food and help in restarting the economy. There needs to be a substantial increase in humanitarian aid going to the non-government controlled areas. There also needs to be a much greater international presence, especially if the presence of the UN can provide the opportunity for local ceasefires. A demonstration that these areas are viable will help to weaken the regime’s position.
Secondly there needs to be an international buffer zone. Every Syrian to whom I talked stressed the need for a No-Fly Zone. It was argued that with a No-Fly Zone, the war would have already ended and the liberated administrative councils would have been in a much stronger position and the jihadist groups would have been much weaker. This position was also supported by some Turkish officials whom we met. Actually a no-fly zone may not be the right term. Much of the damage is done by shelling and missile attacks; indeed close to the Turkish border there are no air attacks because sorties would need to cross into Turkish airspace. What is needed is a No Attacks on Civilians zone protected by international peace-keepers.
The objections to such a zone are twofold. First, it is argued that it would be impossible to get international agreement since Iran, Russia and China would be opposed. This may well be true but at least an attempt to negotiate a buffer zone would shift the focus of international negotiations from reaching a top down political solution to the conflict to addressing the human needs of the Syrian people. Secondly, there are fears that if undertaken by western countries it would escalate the proxy international war that is already going on. In this case, it is important to stress that a protected buffer zone is not the same as intervention on one side or another. It is about reducing violence not about winning. It is defensive not offensive.
A clear mandate and tight human rights based rules of engagement would be critical to underline the nature of such a zone. At the very least, efforts to establish such a zone would help to shift the public international discourse from the issue of whether Assad remains in power, or the risks of jihadism and sectarianism, to a concern about how to save ordinary Syrians.