The fruits of the Syrian ‘Arab Spring’: over 250,000 dead, over 6.7 million refugees and over 7.6 million internally displaced. A perpetuating cycle of uncontrolled, unending violence.
The plight of refugees seeking asylum in Europe has evoked worldwide sympathy, illuminating the humanitarian issues faced by Syrians escaping the Civil War that has raged on since 2011. Images of distressed and weary refugees bordering European shores has been a common feature of most international news outlets. Hidden behind these depressing pictures is a far more disturbing question of responsibility.
With no end in sight for the refugee crisis, questions of external responsibility for this humanitarian disaster need to assume greater prominence on the international political scene. Particularly, the extensive intervention of foreign states such as the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has over the years seriously intensified the Syrian conflict.
Worsening the situation through its effects on the ground, this intervention can be credited with precipitating the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. Prioritizing the use of force over diplomatic solutions has been a hallmark of foreign intervention, undoubtedly contributing to the destruction of the Syrian nation and along with it, the people’s aspirations of a free Syria.
United States of America
Since the inception of the revolution, the Obama administration has vehemently opposed the Assad regime, condemning its brutality in cracking down on anti-government protesters and demanding it step aside. As of late 2011, American preparations were under way for supporting Syrian rebels in their fight against Assad’s government beyond existing financial support to the opposition. By the end of 2013, this had morphed into full-scale weapons support for Syrian rebels.
This strategy of attempting to undermine the Assad regime was questionable from the beginning. Soon enough, the myth of supporting secular – or now ‘moderate’ – rebels was cracking under reports of terrorist groups operating in Syria. Fighters from supposedly moderate groups were defecting to terrorist organisations such as the Al-Nusra Front. In-fighting between the various groups marked a serious intensification of the conflict. Most notably, the struggle for power between ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front has brought nothing but attacks on Syrian towns and villages, loss of civilian lives and an undesired prolonging of the conflict.
The shocking rise of ISIS in 2014 saw a shift in the American strategy as plans ensued to ‘train and equip moderate’ rebels to counter the extremist group in early 2015. Predictably, this strategy turned out to be an embarrassing failure. The $US 500 million rebel training program was canned by the Pentagon, with the ‘moderate rebels’ not only refusing to fight the Al-Nusra Front, but also handing over their arms to the U.S. designated terrorist organisation. Backfiring, the program that was aimed at curbing militant extremism in one form only helped further it in another.
Like Iraq before it, American intervention and unwillingness to compromise in Syria has escalated the conflict and fostered an environment of instability. With the desperate circumstances causing more Syrians to seek refuge, it is only now that America is willing to negotiate with Assad subject to conditions. Whether any sort of constructive negotiation is feasible at this point remains yet to be seen. One thing is for certain, with the planned deployment of US Special Forces in Syria, American involvement in the conflict is not showing any signs of decline.
One word sums up Assad’s slipping grip on power; Putin. In the face of atrocities committed by the Syrian regime since 2011, the Kremlin has remained supportive of Assad. This is despite global criticism of Assad’s use of force, such as the deployment of barrel bombs which have been particularly destructive in the Syrian War.
Earlier this year when sentiment concerning Assad’s prospects in Syria were negative, Russia increased its support for the dictator. Of course, one must also remain cognizant of the support Assad has received, both financially from the Iranian regime, and militarily from Hezbollah forces. As a whole, this Russian band is united with the common objective of ensuring Assad remains in power at any cost.
Last month, in a move which will probably worsen the humanitarian crisis and lead to inevitable civilian casualties, Russian jets have been actively bombarding Syrian rebels. It seems to be the case that anyone against the regime will be a Russian target.
However, Russia’s power moves have not been vehemently condemned by the United Nations, perhaps because of the dire circumstances and the shift in focus to ISIS. To say the least, this is a reflection of how terrible things have become.
Furthermore, some key players in the Middle-East have shown support for the Russian offensive, such as the rhetorical support from Egypt and Russia’s establishment of a ‘military hotline’ with Israel.
Russia’s strategic interests in the region are predicated on Assad remaining in power. Putin’s October meeting with Assad in Moscow reinforces Russia’s concern in this region. But as with other foreign parties to the conflict, Russia’s concern for the welfare of the Syrian people is nothing more than a side issue.
A no-compromise approach was taken by Turkey from the beginning of the revolution – Assad had to step down. Economic sanctions were subsequently imposed on Syria as then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu anticipated the fall of the Assad regime. Furthering its support for the opposition, the Turkish government has since 2012 played an instrumental role in aiding Syrian rebels. Given the controversy surrounding Syrian rebels and the associated rise in violence attributed to them, in hindsight this isn’t something for Turkey to be proud of.
Perhaps what’s more intriguing is that Turkey has been seamlessly used as a gateway for militants joining the Syrian Civil War. Eyebrows have also been raised at a possible relationship between Turkey and ISIS, as both share a common Syrian-Kurdish enemy in the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Whether this is the truth or mere speculation, Ahmed Davutoglu ironically claimed there was a 360-degree difference between Turkey and ISIS. What is clear is that Turkey has, and is still pursuing a policy of support for Syrian rebels coupled with a fervent desire for regime change in Syria. This probably means Syrians will continue to seek asylum in Turkey as the fighting is prolonged.
On the flip side, Turkey has commendably taken in large numbers of Syrian refugees with UN estimates of over 2 million Syrians registered as refugees in Turkey. Turkey also remains important for the EU, as it seeks a sustainable solution to the refugee crisis.
Turkey’s involvement in the Civil War has produced undesired consequences. Investigations into the October 10 Ankara terror attack have already produced links to ISIS. Just earlier this year, Turkey had vowed to fight ISIS. Its foray into the Syrian front has not produced the dividends it hoped for. Assad is still in power and the Kurds remain fighting in Syria.
In light of this, one must ask if it was it really necessary for Turkey to maintain its unrelenting anti-diplomatic approach. Was it a good idea to prioritize the funding of rebels? Will there be more attacks on Turkish soil as a result of its foreign intervention? Is the continued commitment to rebel groups by Turkey destined to worsen the suffering of the Syrian people?
Diametrically opposed to the revolution from the outset, Iran and the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah (backed by Iran) have been Assad’s most fervent supporters. Ideologically, it seems paradoxical that a theocratic Islamic State like Iran would back a secular Baathist regime like Assad’s government.
However, Iran’s alignment with Assad is based on strategic regional interests. It is designed to counterbalance Sunni influence in the region; especially with Iran now increasingly spreading its tentacles into Iraq as it engages in the battle against ISIS.
Rhetorical and financial support for the Assad regime by Iran has since developed into direct military intervention. For some time, Hezbollah soldiers have been on the Syrian frontline, sacrificing themselves for Ayatollah Khamenei’s regional objectives. With the blessings of the Kremlin, the month of October has seen hundreds of Iranian troops enter Syria providing Assad with another military lifeline.
This ‘anti-rebel offensive’ is clearly designed to keep Assad in power – the primary concern being Iran’s geopolitical interests, not the Syrian people. The ethicality of this intervention is further marred by surveys in Germany indicating that many Syrian refugees are fleeing the Assad regime and not ISIS. Reports of Iranian deaths on the battlefield paint a very sinister picture of the price Iran is willing to pay for Syria.
Iranian intervention, like that of others in Syria, can be summed up as a violent self-interested pursuit for regional power. Iran’s involvement in the recent Vienna talks is a crucial acknowledgement by the key stakeholders in the Syrian conflict that it is a force in the region which needs to be engaged in any constructive peace talks.
Starting with the recall of its ambassador to Syria in 2011, it was apparent that the staunchly Sunni Saudi Kingdom would not miss the opportunity to support the fall of its Alawite adversary. With Assad being backed by the theocratic Shi’ite regime of Iran, King Abdullah sought to reduce Iranian influence in the region and expand his Kingdom’s presence. Qatar also joined in on the fun, with both supporting the US policy to ship armaments to radical militants fighting the regime. Thanks to these nations, there is now another related issue of foreign fighters operating in Syria. Again as with all these foreign players, little consideration was given for the Syrian people.
While America was questioning its own policy of supporting rebels, the Saudis were seeking US and UN approval for ‘heavier weapons’. These rebel groups have brought about anarchy and amplified the sectarian dimensions of the conflict. With brutal atrocities being committed by rebel groups operating on numerous fronts, it is very interesting to see how nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have escaped bearing any sort of responsibility for the status quo.
Nevertheless, knowing the risk of equipping rebel militants, the unbridled ambition of the Saudis to instigate change in Syria has detrimentally altered the situation. What’s more unbelievable is that they have been getting away with just as worse in Yemen. Adding salt to the wound is the appointment of Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador to chair a key UN human rights panel.
* * *
Talks in Vienna over the weekend between all major players in the conflict indicate a positive change at the diplomatic level, even if they have produced no substantive outcomes as of yet. But this begs the question: why wasn’t such a course of action pursued earlier? Had an openness for inclusive and non-violent solutions been initially adopted by intervening foreign states, the magnitude of the refugee crisis wouldn’t have been anywhere near today’s level.
As the EU works to formulate a sustainable plan for the waves of refugees escaping the conflict, questions of accountability for the situation in Syria are yet to receive an honest and comprehensive treatment. What is particularly painful is the quick deference to one-dimensional or violent options by foreign powers, discarding diplomatic avenues that most likely would’ve avoided the current fiasco.
Sadly enough, calls for foreign nations to accept some form of responsibility for their intervention will probably fall upon deaf ears. The real price for destruction over dialogue is the blood of the Syrian people.