Failed Syrian ceasefire

October 31, 2012

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DESPITE the bitterness of the conflict that has raged in Syria for the last 19 months many of us had entertained the hope that the warring parties would honour UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s painfully negotiated ceasefire. After all, it was to cover only the four-day Eidul Azha holiday.

It did not appear to be designed to offer either side an unfair opportunity to regroup or to replenish supplies. All it could do was give the beleaguered Syrian people a respite from the unremitting shelling, bombing and IEDs causing an average of 150 casualties per day. It had the backing of Turkey and Iran, the two regional states that were the principal source of support for the insurgents and the government respectively.

These hopes were belied. The government claimed that they broke the ceasefire agreement only after their forces were attacked or after insurgents planted IEDs.

The first major incident was the explosion of a car bomb in a residential area of Damascus in which, according to Syrian official media, the casualty count was 15 dead civilians, including eight children, and 92 wounded, among them 65 children.

Somewhat belatedly, insurgent forces claimed that this was engineered by the government. But the government’s riposte, if that is what it was, seemed totally out of place. The heaviest air raids of the conflict were carried out in this four-day period according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is generally credited with having good sources within Syria and claims to be an impartial observer of the carnage.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep disappointment that the ceasefire had not held while Lakhdar Brahimi, in Moscow for talks with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said that “the Syrian crisis is very, very dangerous; the situation is bad and getting worse”. The Russian foreign minister expressed his disappointment but also reiterated the Russian view that the western nations should negotiate a political settlement with the Assad regime.

In the meanwhile, the miseries of the Syrian people and the systematic destruction of their country continue. The UN estimates that some 20,000 people have died so far but other possibly more realistic figures put the death toll at 35,000.

Officially 100,000 Syrians have sought shelter in Turkey but in reality the number is probably closer to 180,000 with a similar number having moved to Jordan. The UN estimates that by the end of the year some 700,000 Syrians would have fled the country. Within Syria, the internally displaced number almost two million with the UN trying desperately to find funding to provide shelter and food.

The heavy bombing and shelling to counter insurgent advances and the hand-to-hand combat in many urban areas has meant that much of urban Syria is being razed to the ground. The world heritage site ‘Old Aleppo’ city and the famous market it contains has repeatedly suffered shelling and is in danger of being wiped out as is the Umayyad mosque, an Aleppo landmark which has frequently changed hands between government and insurgent forces.

No estimates have been published yet of the total damage done but it would be safe to say that it would take a decade or more for Syria to rebuild what has been lost in the course of this conflict.

But it is not Syria alone that is affected. The sectarian and ethnic dimensions of the conflict continue to exacerbate tensions within the region.

Turkey, which had emerged as the regional powerhouse successfully pursuing a policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours’, finds itself at odds with Syria. Hence, it has new tensions in its relations with Iran and Russia. These and the refugee problem or even the virtually daily exchange of artillery fire with Syria are relatively smaller problems than the emergence of the Syrian Kurds as an independent force in areas of Syria bordering on Turkey.

The internal problems Turkey has with its Kurdish minority have in Turkish eyes been exacerbated by this development particularly since they see the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant Kurdish force in Syria, as synonymous with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

In Lebanon, Sunni supporters of the Syrian insurgency are at odds with the Shia Hezbollah, the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon and which, it is alleged, is sending its fighters into Syria to support the Assad regime. Lebanon is seen as hovering on the brink of civil war, particularly after the killing of Wissam al-Hassan, the head of security and a staunch anti-Syrian figure.

In Iraq, the spate of bombings on Eidul Azha is related at least in part to the situation in Syria. Sunni volunteers are joining the insurgency while Shia fighters are making their way into Syria to support Assad directly and through Iran. Today, Bibi Zaynab’s tomb in Damascus is being guarded entirely by Shia volunteers from Iran and Iraq.

Jordan, struggling with its own internal political problems, has also to cope with the Syrian fallout. A couple of weeks ago, it announced the arrest of Al Qaeda members coming from Syria carrying explosives and communication devices. The Jordanians believe that this was part of a Syrian government effort to destabilise Jordan.

If the entire region is not to be set aflame a more concerted international effort is needed to work out a negotiated settlement in Syria. It is noteworthy in this context that the Saudi Arab News, while talking about contingency plans drawn up by the UN peacekeeping department for a future ceasefire and deployment of UN peacekeepers says “it is absolutely right that the UN is busy planning for a ceasefire rather than an outright Assad defeat”. One can only hope that this materialises.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.