By Parikshit Khatan:
The bloodied image of a Syrian boy named Omran Daqneesh, pulled out of the rubble of an airstrike, few weeks ago, stunned the global community and sent shock waves across the world. Hailed as a symbol of ‘innocence’, Omran’s bloodstained and mute face meagerly typifies the devastation of land and extermination of millions of people in Syria. The good news is Omran Daqneesh is alive, however, his home, and in fact, much of Aleppo, his city, is crippled. The Syrian crisis started off as a ripple effect from the famous Arab Spring and has been a long continuation of confrontation among both regional players and global heavyweights.
As much as the global community – Western nations, Russia, Gulf sheikdoms, Turkey – and other regionally significant actors claim to pare down the devastation and loss of human lives, little changes on ground. Syria remains a geopolitical cul-de-sac with no possible way out. Each group tiptoes maneuvers against and militarily hurts each other and foments further trouble for Syrians.
The Syrian crisis rests on the compact of compromises that only Syrians have made. Dislodged from their own homes and their land, they have had to flee to Europe and other relatively safer regional havens. Most Syrian cities today are mere debris of historical structures and homes alike. Alan Kurdi, a Kurdish toddler from Syria, seen lying dead ashore in Turkey last year, seems to have made no real impact except for global lamentations and woes.
The Syrian crisis presents an interplay of tactics aiming at varied and contradictory geopolitical gains for different countries. For Bashar al-Assad, saving Baath Party’s rule is paramount. For Iran, Assad’s survival is pivotal to its ‘Shia Crescent‘. For Saudis, Assad’s fall, marks its critical victory against Iranians. For both Russia and America, besides interests of their allies in region, Syria serves their meridian security interests including access to Mediterranean. Hence, regional sectarian cleavage coupled with amplified geopolitical interests encapsulate what we call the ‘Syrian crisis’.
Henry Kissinger, an ace American diplomat, in 1973 remarked, “There can be no war in the Middle East without Egypt and no peace without Syria.” Five long years of crisis and a tumultuous Middle East prove him right. So, why does Syria remain in shambles? Who is responsible for this? Who and what made unending trouble the destiny for millions of Syrians? How do historically warring regional groups unrelentingly treat Syria as a battleground?
Vogue magazine in 2011 portrayed Asama al-Assad, wife of Bashar al- Assad as “a rose in the desert and the First Lady of the safest country in the Middle East.” This account is reflective of a peaceful Syria of 2011. In a span of five years, crisis has engulfed more than 300,000 people. Health and education sectors stand ruined. United Nations futilely calls for human aid to half of the population with none of the parties involved paying heed to such a call. Children and women remain the worst sufferers.
An importunate feature appertaining to the lingering crisis is the involvement of regional players like Saudi Arabia and Iran apart from others like Turkey and Qatar. The conspicuously menacing ‘Pandora’s box’ of the Shia-Sunni divide, once again opened after the Iraq war and seems to be heavily taking its toll on innocent Syrians. Iran’s ‘realpolitik’ seeks to contain the influence of Islamist forces like Muslim Brotherhood bankrolled and supported by Turkey while ensuring Alawite, branch of Shiite Islam, continues to keep a tight rein on the Sunnis (accounting for 70% of the population) residing in Syria. This, obviously, serves as a major bulwark against the Saudi kingdom.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although vying for fundamentally differing factions, defray almost all the expenses of rebel forces like the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat Fatah-al Salem etc. Having lost Iraq to Shias, Saudi Kingdom finds its diadem, of being the ‘undisputed Muslim leader’ globally, under danger. In order to stem the tide of protests and movement in its eastern province, Saudi Arabia wants to make Syria an example of ‘Sunni triumph over Shia’. Further, a putative father of ‘Salafism’ or ‘Wahabism’, Saudi Arabia, like many others, treats Syria as a Shia borough that needs to be turned into a Salafist bastion. For revanchist Saudis, it’s a quest to save Sunnis from the persecution of Shias.
The tiny sheikdom of Qatar aims to ensconce a powerful Islamic state ruled by the Muslim brotherhood in Syria. It’s believed to have spent an estimated $1 to 3 billion supporting rebel forces while the major chunk went to the Muslim brotherhood. Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia, also successfully maneuvered the ouster of Syria from the Arab League in 2011. Its influence, however, has been ebbing of late.
Turkey, another major power in the region, seems to be setting its eyes on an elusive goal i.e. toppling the Assad regime and installing an Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2011, Turkey severed its diplomatic ties with Syria, overly believing the tutelage of the United States and grossly underestimating the resilience of both Assad and Iran. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish President, in fact, recognised rebel forces as the legitimate government of Syria. In a brazen attempt to overtake an entirely autochthonous movement, Turkey helped Syrian rebel forces unite and allowed them to convene in Antalya and Istanbul.
Blandishment and flirting with Syrian rebel forces has already massively cost Turkey. Its all-season nemesis, the Kurds, have been overtly financed and supplied weapons by NATO partner United States. For Turkey, a nightmarish scenario of Kurdish independence in Syria that is consequently bound to marshal support for Kurdistan is undesirable at all costs. Ankara, therefore, now seeks a solution for the Syrian problem forthwith.
Varying sectarian militias have emerged in Syria on either side of the Syrian regime. Scores of Shiite militias have been combating on ground alongside the Syrian army to obliterate the opposition forces. These are Afghan Fatimid, Iraqi Abbas Brigade, Mahdi Force of Iraq, Iraq Martyr Brigade, Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Zulfiqar Brigade and Hezbollah of Lebanon, besides Quwat al-Riddah, an alleged creation of Hezbollah, fighting in Syria. There are other non-state actors like Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Salem) an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, Jaish al-Islam (Force of Islam) and Jaish al-Fatah (Force of Victory) fighting against the Assad regime. This epithet ‘non-state actors’ actually entails covert state support i.e sumptuous amount of Monetary and logistical assistance.
The dilation of the barbaric Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh in Syrian territory and its ‘giving no quarter’ approach towards those who don’t seem fit into their interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) has further closed avenues for ordinary Syrians. Infamous for its barbarity, this rough-and-tumble terrorist organisation has been destroying historical cities and maiming, raping, slitting and variously exterminating those considered theologically heretical by it.
Former United Nations General Secretary and United Nation’s special representative to Syria, Kofi Annan’s prognosis, of a gnawing depredation in the region if the crisis is not handled properly, has come true. For the time being, Syria is a stirring cauldron of conflicting ideologies, interests, sectarianism, disguised stratagems and beleaguered forces upending each other everyday. Major regional powers, seeking to push through their interests in Syria, must stop having Syrians over a barrel. They must dispense with the uncannily constructed ‘Shia-Sunni’ schism. Blood-thirsty forces with no sense of compunction must not be given free rein to kill people. Innocent civilians must not be left to the mercy of ghouls. Truculent ‘non-state actors’ need to be taken to task, sapped and rendered enfeebled, and ‘states’ ought to reinstate peace in Syria.Streams of blood flowing through Syrian desert must dry once and for all.