LOOKING across Syria’s killing fields, it’s impossible to say who the good guys are anymore. When the anti-Assad protests broke out in 2011, we all cheered the pro-democracy demonstrators, specially after security forces cracked down hard, killing, jailing and torturing thousands.
But it wasn’t long before these moderate activists were elbowed aside by extremists. Soon, armed by the Turks and Saudi Arabia, they became the most effective of the groups fighting Assad. Stories of atrocities committed by even moderates began filtering into the media; but it was the Al-Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda franchise holder, that gained the most fearsome reputation.
Soon, a breakaway group, initially calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), overtook Al-Nusra in sheer barbarism as well as in the scope of its ambition. This became apparent when its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, crowned himself the Caliph of what he dubbed the Islamic State. Its online propaganda machine has posted many videos demonstrating its bloodthirsty nature. All along, these fanatics have maintained covert links with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, recent reports have surfaced indicating that the Turkish border is open to jihadis joining the battle against the Assad regime.
Currently, however, IS has been pushed off the front page by the fierce fighting around Aleppo, Syria’s second city. Devastated by years of bombardment by Assad’s forces, this key rebel stronghold is in danger of falling into regime hands. The Syrian army’s recent successes owe much to the aerial support they are receiving from Russian aircraft.
Inevitably, this campaign has caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee to the Turkish border. The Turks and their Saudi allies, watching their proxies in retreat, have accused Russia of war crimes, but Putin remains unmoved. The EU, fearing yet more refugees on its doorstep, has appealed to Moscow for restraint. But with the momentum and traction the Russian-led alliance — which includes Syria and Iran, as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah — has gained, it is doubtful if humanitarian concerns will halt the attack. And Saudi Arabia, with its murderous attacks on civilian targets in Yemen, is hardly in a position to accuse others of indiscriminate bombardment.
The American role in recent events has been highly equivocal: although it has protested against open-ended Russian support for Assad, the US-led aerial campaign has shifted its focus entirely to the IS, while the Russians pound targets close to Aleppo, and also provide support to the Syrian Kurds as they attack IS forces. This division of labour reveals a tacit agreement, as well as a more nuanced American position.
Earlier, the Americans were on the same page as the Saudis and the Turks in demanding the immediate exit of Bashar al-Assad. But they now realise that with the backing of Iran and Russia, Assad could be around for a long time; the fighting will go on, and the refugees will continue to flee to Europe. One reason talks have not succeeded is that all sides in the conflict fancied their chances of outright victory. Usually, negotiations succeed when one side is winning, and the losers are given the opportunity to declare victory and go home.
Washington can see that if it opposes Moscow to placate its Turkish and Saudi allies, this devastating conflict could last for years. Only if one side or the other loses can hostilities end. But the line along which the bombing campaign has been divided would indicate an unspoken partition of Syria, with Assad’s forces retaining the Western part running south from Aleppo along the Mediterranean coast. Eastern Syria, consisting mostly of desert, would be fought over by IS and other Islamist groups. The north of Syria is already in Kurdish hands.
Of course, such an arrangement — if and when formalised — would be resisted tooth and nail by Turkey and Saudi Arabia because it would leave the hated Bashar al-Assad in power. For Turkey, the presence of a quasi-Kurdish state on its border with Syria is unthinkable as it would encourage Turkish Kurds to seek independence, specially as the Iraqi Kurds have already carved out their own autonomous region. For the Saudis, the presence of an Alawite regime — albeit in a truncated Syria — would spell a defeat in its campaign to reduce Iranian influence in the region.
The Russians would see this redrawing of borders as a victory as they would be able to retain the naval base at Tartus, as well see a client hang on to power. It would gain respect in a part of the world where strength and the ability to keep one’s word matters greatly. And having seen the consequences of toppling dictators in Libya and Iraq, Moscow would wish to avoid an even more chaotic scenario than the one we have now in Syria.
And those wishing to see Bashar Al-Assad give up and walk away forget what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddafi when they were toppled. Syrian minorities continue supporting Assad because he protects them, and if he goes, they fear a bloodbath. After all, they saw what happened to Christians and Yazidis at the hands of Muslim extremists after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
So many motives, so many players: no wonder there’s still no solution in sight, and the carnage continues. And as the two bomb attacks on Turkish forces recently showed, the conflict has the potential to spread and suck other regional powers into its furnace. Already Turkey has threatened retaliation against Syrian Kurds, holding them responsible for the Ankara bombing, a charge they have denied. The Saudis have threatened to send troops to Syria, something most observers dismiss as hot air.
Unless Russia and America can sit down and work out a realistic, durable solution, the Syrian blood will continue to flow.
Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2016