Syria’s next chapter

Can a war end without resolution? If so, what happens to Syria’s remaining residents, warring factions and the world’s attitude toward humanitarian intervention? Michael Petrou imagines future possibilities not far off.

By: /
20 December, 2018
People travel in a train towards an international fair in Damascus, Syria, September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Almost eight years after it began, with 14-year-old Naief Abazid spray-painting a message on his school wall in Daraa, southern Syria, that called for the fall of dictator Bashar al-Assad, the civil war in Syria is all but over.

United States President Donald Trump’s announcement this week that he will bring home the 2,000 US troops now in Syria removes the only force that might conceivably have stood in the way of Assad reasserting control over the country. But no one has won the war — not even Assad, whose regime once seemed sure to follow those headed by other Middle East strongmen who were toppled in the early days of the Arab Spring (“It’s your turn, Dr. Bashar al-Assad,” Naief had written). He rules a shattered country, dependent on Russia and Iran, shunned by most of the world, and deprived of its most valuable commodity — the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have left the country, or died in Assad’s prisons or under the bombs of his Russian and Iranian allies.

And yet those who sought Assad’s removal, the marchers and demonstrators, and then the armed fighters, Islamists and jihadists, have lost. They hold shrinking territory, notably in Idlib province, home to 90,000 rebel fighters, including about 20,000 jihadists, members of a rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate among them. Some three million civilians live there, too. There is a truce, which has been violated by both sides and is in danger of collapse. It cannot last. Eventually Assad, with Russia and Iran, will retake the territory by negotiation or force.

The worst outcome for Idlib would be a military assault. Towns will be bombed. Civilians will die. Tens of thousands of refugees will flee north, to Turkey, if Ankara opens its borders. There are rebels who will not surrender, and during their final stand they will take with them neighbourhoods and those who live in them.

The best feasible outcome is a negotiated settlement that sees Turkey, which backs many of the rebel groups and has troops in northern Syria, reach an agreement with Russia and Syria. But there will still be rebels who will not, cannot, surrender, and under this scenario they will also die or flee, as will civilians who fear, with reason, their fate under Assad’s rule.

Either way, the war, at least its most active face, will grind to a halt. It will do so with no real resolution. “A population that has been pummelled into submission, a government with very little legitimacy, with very few friends and very few resources,” is how Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, describes Syria. He predicts it will be “like a bleeding wound in the middle of the Middle East, indefinitely.”

And yet if the war lacks resolution, its impact, and the impact of its end, will be enormous. The reverberations, some seemingly beneath the surface, others ignored in Canada and elsewhere, will continue for years, perhaps lifetimes. They include a general reluctance on the part of Western governments to intervene with military force in the face of mass atrocities; the expansion of Iranian power and influence in the Middle East, at the expense of the United States and its allies; Russia’s return as a regional power; and the survival of the so-called Islamic State jihadist group, although now as a run-of-the-mill terrorist outfit rather than the caliphate it once claimed to have resurrected.

The greatest repercussions will be felt in Syria, in the countries to which Syrians have fled, and among those who once called the country home. The Syrian conflict began as a multi-confessional protest movement, albeit one that lacked much representation from Syrians who share Assad’s Alawite faith. It devolved into a sectarian civil war in which so much blood has been shed in the name of one religious interpretation or another that it may take generations for Syria’s diverse fabric to be knit back together.

If Syria’s national identity is fractured, its physical infrastructure is just as badly damaged. Swaths of ancient commercial centres such as Aleppo were reduced to rubble. Rich Western countries will be reluctant to fund reconstruction as long as Assad is in power, and millions of Syrians who might have played a role in rebuilding the country now live elsewhere, in Europe, Canada, and especially in neighbouring countries in the Middle East. They have lost homes and fortunes, and, in the case of too many children, an education. The effects of their exodus will be felt for generations, too.

On October 4, 2011, after 10 months of intensified violence that followed the outbreak of protests against Assad’s rule, the United Nations Security Council failed to adopt a resolution that would have condemned “grave and systematic human rights violations in Syria” and warned the government of Syria that it could face non-military measures under Article 41 of the UN Charter if such violations continued.

The vote was defeated by permanent UN Security Council members China and Russia. Other resolutions requiring Assad to step down, or threatening sanctions against the Syrian regime, were similarly defeated by China and Russia. To date, no meaningful action has been taken by the Security Council against Assad’s regime.

Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, says this reflects the “absolute failure of the United Nations Security Council and the international community to uphold [its] collective responsibility to protect.”

The responsibility to protect is a concept all members of the United Nations endorsed in 2005, one that is meant to address war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity. It holds that a state has an obligation to prevent such acts in its territory, and, when it fails to do so, the international community can take collective action through the Security Council to do so.

For Adams, blame for global inaction against Assad’s regime in Syria lies with the Security Council members who blocked such action. There’s nothing flawed about the responsibility to protect as an organizing principle. But it is one that reflects global values and the world’s willingness to act on them, and these have changed over the course of the last eight years.

In March 2011, NATO members states, including Canada, and the United States during the presidency of Barack Obama, launched military strikes against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with the goal of protecting civilians in areas rebelling against his rule from a feared massacre. The NATO mission was later criticized for expanding its UN-justified mandate and fighting to overthrow Gaddafi, who was in fact deposed and murdered by rebel forces.

Two years later, a very real massacre took place in Ghouta, Syria, where the United States estimates more than 1,400 people, including children, died in a chemical weapons attack carried out by Syrian government forces.

Obama, who had explicitly warned against the use or even transfer of chemical weapons, prepared to launch retaliatory attacks along with Britain and France, but ultimately backed off when Russia brokered a deal that would supposedly see Syria, which denied carrying out the attack, give up its chemical weapons stockpiles.

A recent BBC investigation concluded Syrian regime forces have used chemical weapons more than 100 times since the deal. Chlorine gas was allegedly the most frequently used weapon. Chlorine gas was not included in the list of chemicals that the Syrian government submitted to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and promised to give up. But the United States says that the use of chlorine with the intent to kill or harm would violate the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed in 2013. The BBC concluded the far deadlier chemical sarin, or a sarin-like substance, has also been used since 2013.

“Assad doesn’t directly threaten the West. He has learned he is safe so long as his victims are Syrians.”

A shift had occurred. Spooked by the results of military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States was wary of getting much involved in Syria, regardless of what was happening on the ground there. Under Trump, America did launch airstrikes with France and Britain against regime targets this April, in response to another chemical weapons attack, but this was a limited strike that could not change the balance of forces on the ground or protect civilians there.

“What’s become really clear over the last seven years in Syria is that it has damaged and corroded all of the international norms and principles. It is true that it has affected the way people view the responsibility to protect, but it has also affected the way people see human rights, the way people see international humanitarian law, the way people see the prohibition on chemical weapons. All these norms and principles have been under attack in Syria, and they are all at stake afterwards,” says Adams.

This will matter far beyond Syria. A coalition of nations, including Canada, intervened to fight the so-called Islamic State in Iraq, at the request of the Iraqi government, and in Syria, without Assad’s approval. But the Islamic State was a threat to Western nations and their interests. Civilians targeted by the group in Iraq and Syria benefited from the coalition’s intervention, but their suffering wasn’t what triggered it.

Assad doesn’t directly threaten the West. He has learned he is safe so long as his victims are Syrians. It’s a dangerous precedent.

“Perpetrators watch and they learn, and they see what others get away with,” says Adams. “And Syria has been an emboldening influence on other people in other countries who have slept a little bit sounder and become a little bit more confident in terms of their own potential to violate international humanitarian and human rights laws and get away with it.”

A boy looks at his friends playing soccer among destroyed buildings in the Al- Khaldieh area in Homs, Syria, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The primary reason Assad has survived at all is because of Russian and Iranian assistance. Both countries intervened because they judged doing so was in their self-interest. Both were right. And both will continue to benefit as a result.

Russia has been a Syrian ally since the Cold War. The Syrian city of Tartus is home to Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been steadfastly against revolution-fuelled regime changes around the world, which he believes are funded and directed by the United States and its partners, and which he fears might one day threaten his own leadership in Moscow. And Russian nationals number among the Islamists fighting Assad. Helping to stamp out the uprising against Assad served a number of Russian foreign and domestic policy goals.

Claiming to be targeting “all terrorists,” Russia launched its first airstrikes against rebels fighting Assad in September 2015, after Assad sent a letter requesting assistance. Putin said his forces were acting “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupy, not wait for them to come to our house.”

Obama’s White House almost welcomed Russia’s intervention, believing it might become a quagmire in the way Afghanistan was for the Soviets two generations earlier, says Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“What they miscalculated is, it’s not Russian ground power, it’s Russian air power coupled with the ground power of Iran and its Shiite militias, and for that reason Russia has managed to do this on the relative cheap,” he says.

Instead of becoming bogged down in Syria, Russia efficiently changed the course of the war, ensuring Assad’s survival, and, it now appears, his quasi-victory.

And Russia has enlarged its footprint in the region in a way it hasn’t since at least the collapse of the Soviet Union. “It’s made itself a player in the Middle East, when, frankly, it was sort of a dying imperial power that no-one gave any regard to,” says Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

This comes at a cost to the United States. “Look at the number of times that Israeli leaders, Arab leaders, Iranians, Turks are now visiting Moscow instead of Washington. [The United States] has ceded enormous influence to Russia,” says Sadjadpour.

There are limits to the extent that Russian influence can grow. It lacks the United States’ economic clout. And backing Assad does not win Moscow friends among Sunni Arab leaders in the region. But Russia has met the goals it set for itself with intervention.

Iran set out to accomplish even more than did Russia. It had to, because Iran’s stakes in the outcome of the civil war in Syria were uniquely high.

According to Hanin Ghaddar, the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iran sees Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as a united corridor of Shiite Muslims over which it seeks control, notably through proxy militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The toppling of Assad’s regime would have been a sharp blow against Iranian efforts to establish hegemony in that stretch of territory.

“You have to think what would they have lost had Assad fallen,” says Sadjadpour. “And what they would have lost is their most consistent and sole ally for four decades, and the very crucial bridge between them and the crown jewel of the Iranian Revolution, which is Lebanese Hezbollah. Had Assad fallen, all those things would have been potentially lost.”

Iran enlisted Hezbollah, and other Shiite militias whose members come from as far away as Afghanistan, to ensure that under the guidance of Iran’s own Revolutionary Guard Corps, that didn’t happen. Their strength on the ground in Syria was another significant factor in the outcome of the war.

“What have they gained? They feel that their policies have been vindicated,” says Sadjadpour.

“They viewed this as a proxy war with America and their Sunni Arab rivals like Saudi Arabia. And they prevailed. So, they feel strong and vindicated.” A compliant regime in Damascus, Sadjadpour notes, also gives Iran access to a direct border with Israel on the Golan Heights.

It all amounts to a reshuffling of power in the region. Old structures haven’t been completely overturned. Even after it pulls its troops out of Syria, the United States will be the dominant power in the Middle East, and will remain as such for the conceivable future. But influence is drifting away from Washington and toward Russia and especially Iran.

From the very beginnings of protest against his rule, Assad framed dissent as terrorism. When those protests grew into armed rebellion, spurred on to a large extent by Assad’s violent suppression of the demonstrations against him, he framed the choice in Syria as one between his rule or a Syria controlled by jihadists.

Eventually, jihadists calling themselves the Islamic State did control much of Syria. Their cause was helped by Assad and Russia focusing their firepower on other rebel groups until the Islamic State was indeed among Assad’s most powerful opponents.

The group’s aspirations were not confined to Syria. They declared a caliphate that included territory in Iraq, and claimed provinces elsewhere. “Remaining and expanding,” their propaganda magazines boasted, and this boldness — not even the Islamic State’s rival al-Qaeda claimed to have built a state — attracted recruits from all over the world, including dozens from Canada. They murdered Western hostages in Syria and launched and inspired terrorist attacks in Europe and North America.

But now the Islamic State has no state beyond slivers of desert, and it will soon lose these. The cities and countryside it once controlled have been squeezed between Syrian government troops, Turkish troops and Turkish-backed rebels, and the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of mostly Kurdish militias who have carved out their own self-governing territory in the northeast of Syria.

“If the Islamic State’s territory in Syria has almost disappeared, its cause there persists.”

The American troops in Syria are with the SDF. Trump says they are no longer needed because the fight against the Islamic State has been won. But active fighting against the group continues. France, which has about 1,000 soldiers in northern Syria, says they will remain. “For now, of course we are staying in Syria because the fight against Islamic State is essential,” French Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said in a television interview. It is believed Britain also has special forces in the country.

According to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, losing territory has undermined the Islamic State’s credibility among jihadists. “Even internal critics, they say the whole collapse of this project made the Islamic State a laughing stock,” he says.

But the Islamic State itself will not collapse, it will simply change its message, he says. “They’ll say that actually Islamic State is not about controlling territory, it’s about spreading the true religion. [They’ll say], ‘Oh, we’ve suffered losses before, but were able to rise again.’”

The Islamic State has indeed appeared on the verge of defeat before. It fought an insurgency and terror campaign in Iraq following the American invasion but was decimated by 2010, in large part because Iraqi Sunnis rejected its brutality and fought with the Americans against it. The United States then pulled its troops out of Iraq, and Sunnis grew resentful because of the discriminatory policies of Iraq’s Shiite government. Syria’s civil war gave the group an opportunity to regroup, and it stormed back in force.

The Islamic State still threatens the West, Tamimi says. “In the case of attacks in Europe, for example, it’s not a case of sending operatives direct from Iraq or Syria anymore. It could just be that you have supporters and they communicate online with Islamic State operatives via some encrypted application, and they can direct them to conduct an attack. There would still be a terrorist threat. It’s just that we don’t have an Islamic State with a conventional army anymore.”

And if the Islamic State’s territory in Syria has almost disappeared, its cause there persists. “As long as [Assad] rules Syria, he’s going to attract Sunni jihadists who see him as this Shiite Iranian-backed Alawite dictator who has committed an ongoing genocide against Sunni civilians, women and children,” says Sadjadpour.

“If I were a 14-year-old kid living in squalor in one of those camps and my family members were killed, we lost our homes, because of this one man backed by the Russians and Iranians, I’d probably be predisposed to join one of these groups seeking retribution against Assad.”

Western countries may not avoid getting targeted by this desire for revenge. Assad and the Russians have blamed the United States for supporting rebels gunning for regime change in Damascus, but many Syrians who have suffered at Assad’s hands believe the United States stood idle while Assad destroyed their homes and drove them into exile.

Syrian Democratic Forces and US troops are seen during a patrol near the Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said

This threat from transnational terrorists commands attention in Western countries, especially as Islamic State recruits from places such as Canada return home. But the greatest effects of Syria’s civil war have always been felt in the Middle East, and of course in Syria itself. This won’t change.

More than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes as a result of the civil war, five million of whom now live outside the country. Some may return as Assad solidifies his control over Syria, but for many, perhaps most, the exile will be permanent.

Since the fall of 2015, about 40,000 Syrian refugees have moved to Canada, where their presence is mostly welcomed and is a source of pride for Canadians who believe their country should be a place of refuge.

This reaction tends to obscure the fact that the number of Syrians in Canada is comparatively small. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians flooded to Germany in 2015, for example. Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to accept them. The choice weakened her politically, and she recently announced she will not contest another election.

But the vast majority of Syrian refugees remain in the Middle East, in countries without the resources of Germany, Canada or other Western nations.

“The fact that Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have been able to hold it together is a miracle, and I don’t think we should take that for granted,” says Momani. “We need to start thinking about the long-term implications of that in all three countries.”

Such implications include strain on the local job market, infrastructure and education systems. In Lebanon, which has been mostly peaceful since the end of the Lebanese Civil War a generation ago, the influx of mostly Sunni Muslim refugees upsets the country’s fragile sectarian balance.

All three countries, which together host more than four million Syrians, are trying to provide schooling and support for the refugee children among them. But this can’t change the fact that an entire generation has had their upbringing and education disrupted in ways that will ripple throughout their lives.

“It is not a benign reconstruction policy. I think we end up sullying our hands.”

Even this pales in comparison to Syria itself. The country will probably not break up. The Kurds and their allies in the northeast have no interest in separating says, Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst with family ties to northern Syria. They want to be part of a federal Syria, akin to Switzerland or Canada, he says. Turkey, in any case, would never tolerate a Kurdish state on its borders.

But a united Syria is still a broken and empty one. The country needs to be rebuilt. And while Canada and other countries in the West have some interest in a stable Syria, and perhaps a humanitarian obligation to help ease the suffering of those living there, none wants to bolster Assad.

“I think we shouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, personally,” says Momani, speaking of reconstruction efforts and whether Canada should be involved.

“It is not a benign reconstruction policy. I think we end up sullying our hands. The regime is intimately tied to any reconstruction efforts. They are taking a cut off the top, so in many ways you would be emboldening the regime.”

And so, the Syrian war ends with the country and almost everyone who once lived in it worse off than when the war began.

It is tempting to condemn the whole enterprise — the teenagers scrawling graffiti on a school wall and everything that came after. However bad life was under Assad before the war, surely it was better than this.

That may be true. It may also be that not enough time has passed to properly judge what has happened, and what may yet occur.

“Sometimes lost causes can be worthwhile,” George Watt, an American who fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, said in a 1965 interview with a CBC researcher. It’s the sort of seemingly hollow phrase someone might say for comfort after suffering in a war that achieved nothing.

But, although he could not have known it at the time, the cause was not lost after all. Democracy did come to Spain, only a decade after Watt’s interview. Would it have happened without Spaniards’ collective memory of defying Francisco Franco and his fascist partners decades earlier? Could France have emerged from the shame of collaboration during World War II without a national identity built on resistance against the Nazis that, until later in the war, resulted in little except death for those involved?

It may be that the Syrian war is over, but the revolution, the movement that sparked it, isn’t. There may come a time, years or decades from now, when Syrians establish a government that is not headed by Assad or someone like him, that is more democratic and less cruel. When that happens, the last eight years will be part of the story. But today, such an outcome seems a long way off.

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