North Africa, West Asia

Syria: prospects and solutions

The optimal outcome of the conflict in Syria is for democratic elections to take place and the regime to step down. But what are the real prospects of this happening?

Irfan Chowdhury
9 January 2017

A Syrian child evacuated from the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo during the ceasefire arrives at a refugee camp in Rashidin, near Idlib, Syria. Picture by STR AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Right now, the situation in Syria seems hopeless. As Eastern Aleppo passes into government control the Assad regime has agreed for UN observers to enter the city to oversee the evacuation; an unexpected concession and a small cause for optimism. The people of Aleppo have undoubtedly been experiencing a major humanitarian tragedy, and suffering beyond measure as a result of Russian and Syrian bombardment, as well as the actions of Iranian militias who apparently killed up to 83 civilians since the bombardment ended.

It should be mentioned that rebel groups have also been subjecting civilians in Western Aleppo to major human rights abuses, with shelling aimed at civilian infrastructure that has claimed numerous innocent lives.

It is unclear where Syrian public opinion is regarding Assad. What is clear is that there were peaceful uprisings in various parts of Syria in 2011, and these were brutally crushed by the regime, paving the way for the country to descend into violence and destruction. Indeed, it is certainly not only extremists who are opposed to the regime; peaceful protests have continued to occur intermittently throughout the war, despite the ongoing chaos. The optimal outcome of the conflict is for democratic elections to take place and the regime to step down, but what seems more likely is that the country will break up into different regions under different forms of governance.

Indeed, it seems as though there are few ‘good guys’ left in the Syrian civil war; the armed rebel groups in Aleppo consist mainly of hardline Islamist factions who certainly do not have a democratic vision in mind for Syria. The only rebel group that still maintains high moral standards seems to be the Syrian Democratic Forces, a secular, left-wing alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen, Circassian and Chechen militias whose aim is the establishment of a democratic state. Two factions in this alliance that are worthy of praise and admiration are the Kurdish YPG and YPJ militias, the latter of which is an all-female anarchist collective. These two groups have been major players in the Rojava Revolution, battling ISIS and other Islamist factions to establish a semi-autonomous region in Northern Syria founded on democratic confederalism, eco-socialism and feminism.

What is clear is that there were peaceful uprisings in various parts of Syria in 2011, and these were brutally crushed by the regime, paving the way for the country to descend into violence

The main armed groups operating in Aleppo, on the other hand, are quite different; they are primarily the al-Nusra Front, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, all virtually indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. AThese groups have employed tactics such as torturing captives, murder, as well as abducting civilians and holding them in cages. It is true that there may be other, smaller rebel groups based in Aleppo with different ideologies, but their existence, if confirmed, would be inconsequential. Up until 2015, it was still possible to refer to a “moderate opposition” in Syria operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. Yet, this group was accused of atrocities by Human Rights Watch, including the use of child soldiers, using schools as military bases and torturing and executing captives, but its stated aim was still the establishment of a democratic state. However, this faction appears to have collapsed or at least has been severely weakened. Rami Jarrah, a prominent Syrian activist and co-founder of the ANA Press news outlet, declared in 2015 that there “is no such thing as the Free Syrian Army”. The same year, Al Jazeera reported that the group has been “decimated by desertions” and that its power has waned “dramatically” owing to its lack of structure and its refusal to participate in negotiations. 

The fragmentation of any structured moderate opposition to the Assad regime has been exploited by various al-Qaeda offshoots currently engaged in a brutal war with the regime. several of these groups are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and consist of both native Syrians and outsiders. It is unclear how many rebel factions the western powers are now arming and financing; from 2012 onwards, arms were flowing from the US to the Free Syrian Army with the direct participation of the UK, while the Harakat Hazzm group was also armed by the US. Both groups have since virtually disbanded, with members from Harakat Hazzm joining the al-Nusra Front and the Levant Front, both al-Qaeda offshoots.

It is highly likely that American weapons, funnelled into Syria with the assistance of the UK, are now in the hands of these extremist factions. Reports emerged as early as 2014 showing al-Nusra fighters, whose ideology is similar to that of ISIS, using American-made weaponry. The following year a rebel commander told CBS News that a fellow commander of the 70 US-trained fighters, had given “half of his American weapons to al-Nusra”. Moreover, the US Central Command admitted in 2015 that arms supplied to the New Syrian Force, a rebel group that no longer exists, had been handed over to the al-Nusra Front.

However, alongside this ongoing support for the rebels, the US and the UK have also been tacitly supporting the Assad regime by bombing territories controlled by ISIS. The US has gone a step further by targeting various al-Qaeda leaders and has even indicated in the past that it would be willing to partner with Russia, Assad’s most crucial backer, in a joint bombing campaign aimed at ISIS. The Assad regime, Russia and Iran have been warring with these various factions on the ground, with Britain and the US prolonging the conflict by coordinating with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to support the rebels, while simultaneously helping to preserve the regime. Meanwhile, the Syrian people have been suffering untold misery and devastation.

the US and the UK were close enough with Assad to be able to render people to his torture chambers

There are not many good options in front of us here in Britain; the limited steps we could take are to push for the establishment of humanitarian corridors and ceasefires in areas under bombardment, lobby the Assad regime and the Russians to permit humanitarian aid-drops, take in as many refugees as possible and press the British government to open up information about its covert operations in Syria to public debate and scrutiny.

Any military intervention without UN authorisation would be illegal and, regardless, would not be motivated by humanitarian concerns; states do not go to war for any reason other than their own perceived material self-interest, despite lofty professions of altruism and noble intent. Besides, it was not so long ago that the US and the UK were close enough with Assad to be able to render people to his torture chambers. It is highly improbable that, after exploiting the brutality of his regime for their own purposes and allying themselves with the most savage dictatorships in the world, the US and UK governments have suddenly become valiant crusaders against tyranny and oppression.

Moreover, any direct attempts at regime change in Syria could possibly result in a nuclear holocaust. Right now we should use our diplomatic influence to try to limit the destruction. Our strategy of bombing ISIS in Syria is also plainly not working; there have been increased attacks in Europe, civilians are being slaughtered and ordinary Syrians are undoubtedly being radicalised by our bombs. We should offer logistical support (and possibly military aid) to the ones on the ground who are making a difference - namely the Kurdish forces, who are in the process of combatting ISIS in Rojava and could do the same thing in Raqqa. There have been hesitant steps in that direction, but a lot more is needed. Other than that, there is not much that we can do.

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