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Syria’s endless woes

The involvement of major international players in Syria will prove to be a big challenge to regional and world peace

Syria’s endless woes
The US attack at Shayrat air base in Syria.

With half a million deaths, millions injured and displaced, civil war in Syria continuing since the middle of 2011 is a single largest man-made disaster in the second decade of 21st century. The use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al Assad against its own people in 2013 and this year prove the inhuman and brutal characteristics of Syrian civil war.

From any standpoint, the armed conflict in Syria going on since 2011 is a major challenge to regional and world peace. The US missile attack on a Syrian military installation the other day in retaliation to Assad’s use of chemical weapons provides a new dimension to more than half a decade of civil war in Syria.

How will the large-scale violence and armed conflict in Syria, involving the government, opposition groups, the IS and international players, impact on the Middle East? Is the recent tug of war between the United States and Russia over Syria a departure of Trump’s ostensible pro-Moscow policy? Why the United Nations, OIC and the Arab League are unable to end civil war in Syria thus mitigating the plight of millions of people of that war torn country? How Pakistan’s joining the so-called 39-nation Islamic military coalition will impact on the country’s sectarian divide?

These are the questions which are raised in order to understand the dynamics of Syrian civil war.

The standoff in the management and resolution of conflicts in Syria is because of three main reasons. First, the hard line position taken by the regime of Bashar al Assad against the demand of opposition and some international players to step down from power because he is considered part of the problem than part of the solution. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, unlike Libya and Egypt, where demonstrators forced the incumbents Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Qaddafi to step down, things in Syria took a different turn. Instead of coming under pressure of opposition composed of the conglomeration of Islamist, secular and democratic forces to resign, Assad used excessive force to quell insurgency against his regime. He manipulated the diverse nature of opposition against him and succeeded in retaining his power, albeit the loss of territory to various opposition groups.

The tragedy which struck Aleppo is a case in point where for several months fighting between the forces of President Assad and rebels led to large scale casualties.

Furthermore, Assad used his country’s age-old alliance with Russia to seek foreign military support and Moscow’s successive vetoes in the UN Security Council resolutions which were aimed to condemn Syria’s massive human rights violations. Assad also sought support from Iran, another ally, to protect his regime from the coalition composed of the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But the price of his intransigence to remain in power proved to be lethal and it caused human tragedy with half a million casualties, millions injured and displaced.

Second, inroads made by the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq caused widespread alarm in the region and the world. The inhuman acts of IS in the name of Islam helped Assad to seek legitimacy for his pariah regime and sustained the standoff.

The neighbours of Syria, despite being inundated with refugees from that country, failed to formulate a coherent strategy to find a peaceful solution of armed conflict. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq as the neighbours of Syria failed to compel the UN and the Arab League for sending peace-keeping mission so as to arrange for a ceasefire and demilitarisation of armed groups, including the forces loyal to President Assad. In 2011, the Arab League, which tried to launch a peace-keeping operation in Syria, accepted its inability to move in that direction because of its lack of skills and expertise.

Unfortunately, among the neighbours of Syria, Iraq is devastated because of foreign occupation and sectarian violence and is unable to play a viable role for peace in that country. The UN should have played a role for establishing peace in Syria but its failure enabled Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States to militarily intervene in support of their allies. Proxy war, which had cost Iraq around a million deaths, expanded to Syria thus causing massive devastation.

Finally, the absence of a unified force in Syria to act as a buffer between warring parties also prolonged the cycle of violence and bloodshed in that unfortunate country. Dividing the country on sectarian and religious grounds caused unprecedented use of force by the Assad regime and brutal acts of violence by the IS. As a result, armed groups took advantage of the failure of government to establish the rule of law and divided Syria into their several spheres of influence.

The tragedy which struck Aleppo is a case in point where for several months fighting between the forces of President Assad and rebels led to large scale casualties.

The battle for Raqqa, which was captured by the IS in January 2014 and acted as its capital, reflected internal contradictions in the Syrian political landscape. While, the local population of Raqqa, which is heavily Arab, felt disgusted with IS’s control they were also wary of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) — a conglomeration of Kurish and Arab groups.

Backed by the US military, SDF was able to isolate the IS in Raqqa. But as quoted in March 25 issue of The Economist (London), “America’s support for the SDF has infuriated the Turkish government, whose enmity with the Kurds has threatened to derail the campaign against the IS. The SDF is spearheaded by the military wing of the PVD, a Syrian Kurdish party that has seized on the chaos of the Syria’s six year war to carve out a proto-state along the Turkish-Syrian borders.”

The Kurdish factor in both Iraq and Syria is a source of concern for Turkey as the space given to the Kurdish dominated SDF by the United States can go against its interests. Paradoxically, the conflict between the two NATO allies, i.e. Turkey and the United States on handling civil war in Syria, tends to further deepen the level of tension in that war-torn country.

Pakistan needs to be tactful and refrain from getting involved in a conflict like Syria which may be counterproductive.

Presently, reports about growing Russo-Turkish strategic cooperation in Syria are alarming for the United States and its Arab allies in Syria.

Russian-Iranian nexus to protect the dictatorial regime of Bashar al Assad is understandable because of their age-old alliance with Damascus and strategic interests which the two have in Syria. For Russia, close relations with the Alawite minority regime of Assad is a guarantee of its foothold in the Middle East, whereas, for Iran, support for Assad is essential for maintaining its influence in Lebanon. But proxy war in Syria has its own dynamics and price because of endless violence and devastation caused to the people and infrastructure of the country.

As far as the Trump administration and its policy vis-à-vis Damascus is concerned, two weeks ago, it seemed that America subscribed to the Russian policy of sustaining the Assad regime in power. But, Trump was in a fix: supporting Moscow over Syria would make him unpopular in his country. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against the non-combatants, however, provided an opportunity to the White House to take a hardline position against the Assad regime which was consistently pursued during Obama administration.

Pakistan joining the 39-nation Islamic military coalition is much to the chagrin of Iran because of two main reasons. First, Iran perceives the deepening of Saudi influence in Pakistan during the regime of Nawaz Sharif and second, Teheran believes that Pakistan joining the Islamic military coalition would invariably mean its involvement in Syrian and Yemen conflicts.

Earlier, Pakistan had declined GCC’s request to join the Saudi led alliance on Yemen but this time the appointment of former Chief of Army Staff General (Retd) Raheel Sharif as the commander of the Saudi led Islamic military coalition has not gone well with Iran as Teheran has openly expressed its reservations over such an appointment.

On December 23 last year, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, while speaking at Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, had made it clear that “Pakistan supports all efforts employed at facilitating a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive solution that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people through a comprehensive political dialogue.”

While Pakistan wants to stay neutral in the Syrian conflict, such a position may be at stake if the 39-nation Islamic military coalition decides to intervene in Syria to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And Iran is not a member of that alliance and is a key ally of Assad regime. Be as it may, Pakistan needs to be tactful and refrain from getting involved in a conflict like Syria which may be counterproductive. 

Dr Moonis Ahmar

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