Syria faces a looming humanitarian disaster and is in the midst of an acute political paralysis, besides being at the centre of a geopolitical standoff
Three heads of the United Nations humanitarian agencies wrote a cri de coeur for Syria on January 11. Antonio Guterres (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees), Ertharin Cousins (World Food Program) and Anthony Lake (UNICEF) noted, “Syria is undoubtedly the most complex and dangerous” of all conflicts for 2013. Inside Syria, four million people are in grave danger — shelter, food, education, clean water, health care and security are no longer available to them. Additionally, two million Syrians have fled the country for Lebanon and Jordan. The most serious danger is posed to children, half of the displaced and refugees, whose well-being is compromised. “Too many have been injured or killed; too many have seen family and friends die, their homes and schools reduced to rubble.”
The situation continues to deteriorate precipitously. The U.N. produced three Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plans in 2012, and four Syria Regional Response Plans. “It is highly unusual for such plans to be revised so often,” says Radhouane Nouicer, the regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. “It is indicative of the rapid developments on the ground. The magnitude of the humanitarian crisis is indisputable.”
The major snow and rain storms that swept the Levant in early January devastated the fragile U.N. camps, flooding al-Za’atri (Jordan), causing fires in Atmeh (Idlib, Syria) and Ar Raqqa (Syria), and leaving children to struggle with jaundice and the cold near the Turkish border in Bab al-Salameh (Syria). Misery is the mood of the Syrians as they enter another winter with no provisions and no hope. “A bitter winter is the new enemy,” say the three U.N. chiefs.
On January 6, Bashar al-Assad offered talks to bring the political crisis to a close. The Syrian Opposition rejected the offer, but not without cause. Mr. Assad’s own proposal deliberately excluded those who “have betrayed Syria.” Who would define those who have not betrayed Syria and could therefore be legitimate partners in the discussion? At the same time, the Opposition rejects any dialogue that includes Mr. Assad, but also agrees that political dialogue is the only way forward. There has been no movement to the middle. Paralysis continues in the name of dialogue.
Since the uprising began in March 2011, there have been several failed attempts at a political dialogue. Neither side in an incredibly polarised situation is willing to come to the table without preconditions. The Opposition’s minimum demand is for Mr. Assad to leave; Mr. Assad meanwhile shuns those whom he calls terrorists. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s peace agenda of the summer of 2012 fell on its knees because of this standoff. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission might fail for the same reason. Mr. Brahimi, who brokered the successful end to the Lebanese Civil War in 1989, lost his equilibrium, telling the BBC of Mr. Assad’s January 6 speech, “What has been said this time is not really different and it is perhaps even more sectarian, more one-sided. What you need is reaching out and recognising that there is a very serious problem between Syrians, and that Syrians have got to talk to one another to solve it.”
Syria’s Opposition is in disarray. Its new incarnation (November 2012) was shaped with help from the West and the Gulf Arabs. Given its experience in Libya, the West fears a loss of control over the Opposition. This is the main reason why the U.S. hastened to ban the radical Islamist al-Nusra front, to show that it can shape Syria’s leadership. The banning of al-Nusra does not mean that the West is allergic to Islamism. After all, the head of the new Opposition group is Moaz al-Khatib, the former imam of Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque. The Gulf Arabs are not averse to the more radical Islamists, but they have gone along with the West for now. Mr. al-Khatib criticised the banning of al-Nusra because he knows that it plays a significant role on the ground. All groups that call for the “fall of the regime” need to work together, he said gloomily in mid-December. But the paymasters wanted to have their way, dividing the Opposition between the more united front led by Mr. al-Khatib and the Salafis of the Syrian Islamic Front (formed on December 21 without al-Nusra).
The rump secular and democratic Arab nationalists in the National Democratic Rally are now a pale shadow of what they were in their heyday of the 1980s. In the early days of the 2011 rebellion, the regime arrested the leaders of the Rally’s constituents, people such as Ghias Youn Soud, Omar Kashash, Fahmi Yousef, and Tuhama Mahmoud Ma’rouf. Having removed the secular dissidents from the fray in 2011, the regime enabled the Islamists and liberals to take up positions of authority in the new Opposition. When the secular dissidents emerged from their cells, they had little choice but to join up with the Opposition, on the latter’s terms. One of their own, George Sabra, is now a Vice President of al-Khatib’s group.
Unity eludes the opposition — some of this is a consequence of Mr. Assad’s clever manipulation of its constituents (such as the Kurdish groups), but most is thanks to the West’s interventions. Syria’s political factions remain deadlocked.
A cold war has erupted around Syria. On the one side is the West with its Gulf Arab partners and Turkey. With different motivations, they seek to consolidate their gains after losing their pillars of stability in Tunisia and Egypt. On the other side are two different blocs. First there are the Russians who have an old relationship with Syria, where they have a warm water port. The Russians have provided Mr. Assad’s regime with weaponry and with diplomatic cover (although the Putin government has cooled off on this lately). Second there are Iran and Iraq, both of whose governments are wary of the growth of Gulf Arab power. The Gulf Arabs are fully behind the oppositional strands, as long as their ideological fellows in the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis come out on top — formations that the Iranians and the Iraqis do not like on confessional and political grounds. Turkey took an advanced position for the removal of Mr. Assad, but when he set in motion his Kurdish strategy the Turks had to take cover behind Nato’s Patriot wall. With Egypt’s Morsi distracted by his domestic problems, and with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran unsettled by the geopolitical complexities, the Syria Contact Group that they had comprised is silent.
The West is wrapped up in a contradiction. Mr. Assad has been a reliable factor of stability for Israel, something a radical Islamist government would not be. This is why Israel does not favour the removal of Mr. Assad. The West cannot mute its rhetoric, but it has stayed its hand for a full-fledged intervention. Russian intransigence has been a gift to Washington, with the latter taking cover behind the U.N. Security Council veto while it continues to offer its stale rhetoric of regime change.
The geopolitical standoff has not drawn down the maximum positions of all sides. The West and the Gulf Arabs call for Mr. Assad’s departure; the Russians and Iranians support his role in any future political arrangement. What weaponry the West and the Gulf Arabs provide the oppositional fighters is nothing more than what allows them to maintain their standoff against Mr. Assad’s legions. Such cynicism bleeds Syria. A U.N. report from late December points out that the long “conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature.” “Feeling threatened and under attack, ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides.” Sectarianism, the fruit of geopolitical cynicism, now allows the West to feverishly contemplate the break-up of Syria, something that neither the regime nor the Opposition will countenance.
A fragile hope rests on the revitalisation of Arab nationalism as a cord that binds the people across the widening sectarian divides. But in the dungeons of the Ba’ath, Syrian nationalism was asphyxiated. It is too much to hope for its revival in the midst of this tortured struggle. The politics is bewildering, the human suffering intolerable.
(Vijay Prashad is the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (LeftWord Books, 2012) and the co-editor with Madiha R. Tahir and Qalandar Bux Memom of Dispatches from Pakistan (LeftWord, 2013)
Keywords: Syria unrest, cri de coeur, Syria, humanitarian disaster, Bashar al-Assad, Syria politics, Syria civil war, Bashar Assad regime, Free Syrian Army, Syrian rebels, western military intervention