Syrian Unrest: A Decade of Misery for Syrians
Amb VP Haran

18th March 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the commencement of unrest in Syria. The arrest and ill treatment of 15 schoolboys in Darra, a town on the border with Jordan led to about 3000 people holding a demonstration after Friday prayers, demanding their release, lifting of emergency which has been in force since the Arab Israeli war of 1967, and repeal of the restrictive laws on transfer of land near international borders. The Government addressed the demands satisfactorily, but protests spread with every passing week to other cities. Protests were initially limited to Fridays and when it was not gathering momentum, like they did in Tunisia and Egypt, outside forces increased support to the opposition by way of arms, resources, intelligence, media assault on the regime and dispatch of trained militants. All this did not achieve their aim of overthrow of the regime but succeeded only in piling up misery on the Syrians.

There was no serious problem – economic, social, employment or sectarian, in Syria in early 2011, when Arab spring was sweeping North Africa. Its political system, however, was not conducive to the growth of any meaningful opposition. What got Syria into trouble was its external policy; closeness to Russia and Iran, support for Palestinian resistance and antagonism towards Israel. Since Bashar al Assad became President in 2000, the US and the West were targeting him to change Syria’s policy towards Israel and sign a peace deal, without a satisfactory resolution of Golan Heights and to curb support for the Palestinian resistance groups, all of which maintained offices in Syria. The West and the Gulf states also wanted Syria to sever close ties with Iran. Bashar had moderated the policy of his father Hafeez al Assad on political, economic and social issues. The developments in neighbourhood, the continued occupation and later annexation of Golan Heights by Israel and lack of progress on the Palestinian issue convinced him not to deviate from his father’s footsteps on foreign policy. For Syria’s external foes Arab spring offered the best chance in decades to target the inconvenient regime in Syria.

A few months after I left Syria in December 2012, on completion of my tenure, I met a western diplomat who was in Damascus when the unrest began, at a social gathering. On developments in Syria, the diplomat said Syria is a clear example of how a perfectly peaceful society can be destabilized if the West chooses to target it! This sums up what has been happening in Syria over the past decade.

Syria’s foes either misread or deliberately ignored the ground situation very badly. Assad had the support of all sections of the population and was a popular leader. The armed forces stood solidly with him. Syria was the most secular country in that region and any Syrian irrespective of faith could hope to reach the highest levels, on the basis of merit alone. The composition of the Group responsible for dealing with terrorism would prove this point. In July 2012, when the Group was targeted successfully by the opposition, the leader of the Group was a Turkoman, the Defence Minister, a Christian, Army Chief, a Sunni and the intelligence chief, an Alawite. Targeting Syria because majority Sunnis were being ruled by minority Alawites was no recipe for success, for a majority of the people of Syria did not feel that way.

The West and the Gulf did not have an agreed objective and means of achieving it. This led to each country supporting their own chosen groups, resulting in proliferation of these groups which were working at cross purposes. The US did not want a repeat of the Iraq imbroglio. All out efforts to overthrow the regime led to support for various terrorist groups, including ISIS and Al Qaeda for quite some time, resulting in sharp escalation of violence and the Government responding in equal measure. To an IBSA delegation that visited Damascus in August 2011, President Assad acknowledged that some mistakes had been made by the security forces in the initial stages of the unrest and added that efforts were underway to prevent their recurrence. But there was no improvement in the situation. The genie has been let out and the victims are Syrians, which some players dismiss as collateral damage.

This poses the larger moral and political questions of whether some members of the international community can arrogate to themselves the right to intervene in a country, without UNSC authorization, after stoking trouble there and of the limits to which a duly constituted Government can go in containing externally sponsored violence. The stalemate on this issue in the UNSC prevents an objective discussion on these issues.

At the end of 10 years, half the population is displaced, with 45% of the displaced living as refugees abroad. An estimated 350,000, half of them civilians are dead. The economy is in shambles. Political solution is not on the horizon. It will take Syria some decades to recover provided it receives external support for reconstruction. It would be futile to attempt to apportion blame for this situation; all sides are responsible. Many countries will be answerable for the question why was the carnage allowed to continue for a decade. In the official briefing on February 2, 2021 Mr. Ned Price, official spokesperson of the US State Department, speaking on Syrian situation, said that the US administration ‘will use all tools at its disposal – including economic measures – to hold people accountable…’ Will it include the external sponsors of the terrorists in Syria? Will the US also hold accountable the sections of international media whose fabricated reporting was aimed at inciting the people of Syria and the forces that fed them false information?

The inadequacies of the UN system stand starkly exposed in its inability to bring about peace in Syria. UNSC could not agree on a resolution on Syria for several months because Russia and China were opposed to it, following their bitter experience on resolution 1973 on Libya, which was misused for indiscriminate bombing to bring about regime change. India, Brazil and South Africa also made it known that they will not support a resolution on Syria and would abstain. Finally a Presidential Statement was issued on August 3, 2011, when India was chairing the UNSC, thanks to the tireless efforts of our then Permanent Representative, Mr. Hardeep Singh Puri. It stressed that the only solution to the current crisis is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process, with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population. The statement did not lead to any let up in violence on the ground nor was there a scaling down of external interference.

Following the direct intervention of the US and Russia, primarily to contain the ISIS, which had captured large territories in Syria and Iraq, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2254 in Dec 2015, calling on UNSG to convene representatives of the Government and opposition to engage in formal negotiations on a political transition process and expressed support for a Syrian led political process facilitated by the UN. Efforts of successive UN Special Envoys have not made much progress, because the principal actors had different expectations. The UN process will not make progress till the larger issues are settled between the powers supporting the Government and the Opposition. Russia, Iran and Turkey started the parallel Astana process, claiming to be in support of the objectives set out in Resolution 2254; this process suffers from limited participation and objectives but at least achieved a modicum of ceasefire.

The regime has managed to survive, but at what cost? Situation on the ground has deteriorated in the past decade, violence from both sides is of unimaginable proportions, tens of thousands of terrorists from all over have congregated to indulge in their macabre passion, millions have been pushed into economic insecurity and most importantly, the social fabric has been torn apart ever since sectarianism became an important factor in the political and security developments. The last point is worrying for its likely long term impact. National data of UN WFP indicates that 60% of the population is food insecure. There seems to be no end to the sufferings of Syrian citizens.

The Government of President Assad has managed to reestablish control over about two thirds of the country. Despite best efforts, the opposition has not been successful in identifying a leader who is acceptable to a wide section of Syrians and who can unify the opposition. Turkey is in control over parts of North and North West Syria, which is the abode of the terrorists now. Turkey is using the terrorists as its private army. It is taking measures that indicate it is preparing to entrench itself in this area, so that it can resettle the refugees presently in Turkey and also keep a check on the activities of Kurds. The US is helping the Kurds dominated SDF to govern large parts of East and North East, home to Syria’s oil and gas resources. The US presence is more related to Israel’s perceived threat from Iranian activities in Syria than it is to provide security to the Kurds who had helped in the war against ISIS. Russia and Iran are present with the nod of the Government. There has been no significant change in the ground situation in the past year. The intensity of the civil war has waned substantially, but the embers can erupt anytime.

Three major issues need to be addressed in any effort to break the impasse in Syria. First is the presence of about 40,000 Turkey supported terrorists in North West Syria. Syrian citizens among them can be made the same offer that Syria had given to terrorists who had surrendered earlier, that is surrender the weapons and get your documents regularized. Those involved in heinous crimes need to face the law, but can be assured of some lenience. But problems arise in respect of foreign terrorists there. It is estimated that nearly half of the terrorists are foreigners, the largest component being Uighurs. Most countries do not want them back. This is a serious issue which needs to be handled by the international community.
The second is restoration of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, which can be achieved only through the departure of foreign forces – of Turkey, the US, Iran and Russia- from its soil. Turkey seems to have long term plans, as mentioned earlier and the US presence is linked to Israel’s wishes.

The third issue is the political solution. None of the processes underway offer any hope for progress. UN Special Envoy for Syria Mr. Geir Pedersen has kept the process going but has not been able to make much progress. However much a majority of Syrians may like to be left to themselves to work out their political future, it is unlikely to happen that way despite UNSC calling for a Syrian led and Syrian owned political transition. Understanding among the outside powers that are deeply involved in the conflict is a precondition for moving towards a political package. It needs to be recognized that Western style democracy is not the only solution and that there could be other options that would satisfy most Syrians. What should guide the negotiators should be the immediate need for amelioration of the sufferings of Syrian people and putting their welfare at the Centre. If this is accepted, there could be a way forward to address the above three issues together. Discussion on reconstruction and return of refugees could be part of the negotiations. A settlement should also address the security concerns of Israel and Turkey.

There have been reports that outside powers have reluctantly accepted Assad’s continuation as President, but steps that should follow are hardly visible. Signals from the new US administration are not encouraging. It has said that it would not withdraw from Syria any time soon and that it will not be lenient in implementing Caesar Act, which is crippling the Syrian economy and affecting the people more than the leaders. Official spokesperson of the US State Department said on February 2, that the US administration will reactivate efforts to promote a political settlement in Syria, with the aim of ending the civil war, in close consultation with Washington’s allies and partners in the UN. Reports from Eastern Syria indicate that additional equipment is being sent by the US, which is also possibly sending troop reinforcements. Two new runways have been built in East and North East Syria. High Commissioner for foreign affairs and security policy of the EU, Josep Borrel said on March 10, 2021 that EU will not lift sanctions on Syria until political transition begins. These approaches do not bode well for the search for early solution to the Syrian problem.

In a dramatic turn around, many GCC countries which were in the forefront of actively supporting the opposition, including the armed ones, have taken some concrete steps that would help the process of moving towards ending the Syrian tragedy. UAE and Bahrain have reopened their embassies in Damascus and so has Oman. There are indications that thought is being given to reinstating Syria in the Arab League. In a meeting with the Press on March 8, 2021, the Foreign Minister of UAE said that sweeping economic sanctions against the Government of President Bashar Al Assad [following the implementation of the Caesar Act] undermine regional rapprochement efforts that could help end the Syrian conflict. He pushed for reinstatement of Syria in the Arab League. He noted that the Government and private sector could play a role in returning Syria to normal after years of ruinous war. This is a welcome change in policy that keeps in view the welfare of Syrians at the Centre. But, will the Gulf States be able to persuade the US to change its approach?

As I close this article, what I recall is the face of an elderly Armenian Christian woman for Aleppo, who with tears in eyes asked what crime have we committed that God is punishing us like this. We were driven out of Turkey a hundred years back. Syria provided us refuge. It took more than 2-3 generations for us to establish in business and now we are under threat and have to move out abandoning all that we have. The same is true for all Syrians now. Political games continue even as their misery continues. Syrians deserve respite and peace.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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