A Nation of Pain and Suffering: Syria

Our enemies did not cross our borders
they crept through our weakness like ants.

- Nizar Qabbani, “Footnotes to the Book of Setback”
(Hawamesh ‘ala Daftar al-Naksah), 1967.

I. Refugees

News comes from a team sent by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to Homs, Syria. They returned to Damascus in late November, reporting that thousands of displaced people in Homs now live in unheated communal shelters. Half the city’s hospitals no longer function, and severe shortages wrack the civilian population. As winter approaches, a lack of blankets, children’s shoes, and warm clothing will become a serious problem – according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) at least 75,000 children required blankets and warm clothes as of 11 November. The team found that UNHCR plastic sheets are used to cover open doorways and windows, blown out in the fighting. “Many children have not been in school for the last eighteen months. Some city hospitals have been converted into communal shelters and sixty percent of Homs doctors have left, along with other medical personnel.” Agencies like the UNHCR work on a shoestring budget. Their Syria operation is run with 350 staff members. Given the scale of the problem, this is miniscule. With winter approaching and news reports already of children suffering in the camps in Jordan from the cold, the UN has its work cut out for it.

There are, startlingly, areas of Homs where the situation seems almost normal. “Half of Homs exists as it did before,” reported Janine di Giovanni in late October. This is the half, largely Alawite with some pockets of Christians, that the regime has started to protect. The tendency appears to be that if pockets of these communities are isolated from the fighting, sectarian fissures will open up and guarantee the Assad regime with a loyal constituency. In other words, security has become a sectarian matter. If one half “exists as it did before,” di Giovanni notes, “The other half is rubble.” The UNHCR went to the second half.

The OCHA now reports that by its conservative calculations close to 2.5 million people inside Syria are affected by the violence (the dead, who number over 40,000 are in addition to this figure). The UNHCR has registered close to half a million refugees in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. But, as UNHCR’s Chief Communications officer Sybella Wilkes Moumtzis told me, there are “tens of thousands more thought to be in neighboring countries” who are being taken care of by national and non-governmental relief agencies.

The UNHCR reports that refugees fleeing to Jordan have faced “generalized violence” during their transit. I asked Wilkes Moumtzis to define what the agency means by “generalized violence.” She notes simply that “there are daily arrivals of injured people who have to be treated in hospital.” UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller visited the Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan, which has the highest number of Syrian refugees. She found that “insecurity has extended to the country’s borders in some areas, making flight into neighboring countries particularly dangerous.” This is the reason why the UN has called for safe passage out of Syria. There is also talk among some relief agencies in Jordan that the treatment of the refugees by Jordanian authorities has not been exemplary.

Given the political paralysis on Syria, it is astounding that there is so little attention paid to the simple facts of human suffering. Qatar Charity, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief (which sponsored the Mavi Marmara ship to Gaza), the Algerian Reform and Guidance Charitable Association, Lebanon’s Bible Society, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, Doctors Without Borders, and other charities have been raising money and sending aid to the refugee camps. Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief warns that about ten million Syrians are liable to starve this winter. The World Food Program reports that Syrians have been cutting back on their household consumption, skipping meals, eating less or eating lower quality food, sending children out to work, cutting back on education and healthcare, and, most dangerously, selling their limited assets for immediate relief. The aid money is simply not enough, and some of it, aid workers tell me, has been misused through strictures of tied aid.

During the worst of the sectarian conflict in Iraq at the time of the US occupation, Syria took in half a million Iraqi refugees. The number has now swelled to a million Iraqis under UNHCR protection. Many of them remained in their Syrian camps, afraid to return home to what they saw as dangerous instability. This year, as Syria tore at the seams, the Iraqis began their transit home (particularly middle-class Iraqis, who had been in the Damascus suburbs such as Seida Zeinab). But hundreds of thousand remain, afraid for what they will find at home, and fearful that they will be discriminated in the emergent Syria. The Iraqi government has opened its borders to fleeing Syrians. The ironies of disruption and social division are too terrible to bear for families who have lost so much of their sense of place.

The West, which is otherwise vocal about this or that outrage, is sparing with its financial support for the agency. The financially weak Lebanese government has gone the extra mile with very little international support, a point made by the World Food Program’s Ertharin Cousins in early November as she toured the camps in the Bekaa Valley. The small (voluntary) tranches from the US government, for example, add up to the low millions (the most current contribution is $9.6 million).
Meanwhile, the USS Eisenhower, whose annual cost of operation is $200 million, has appeared off the coast of Syria – it has other motives than humanitarian assistance.

II. Neighbors.

As the refugees pour into Syria’s neighbors, tensions come with them. The most thorough report on these tensions was written by the International Crisis Group, whose A Precarious Balancing Act: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict (November 22, 2012) is probably being scrutinized very closely not only in Beirut, but also in Amman, Ankara, and Baghdad. The “combination of heightened insecurity and continued state impotence” in Lebanon, says the ICG, has led to non-state action – abductions, assassinations, and the creation of beltways to send arms into Syria. ICG exaggerates the arms deliveries. Credible reports show that these are tiny and often without impact.

These deliveries are mainly of small arms, not the kind of heavy artillery that only a state can provide to the rebels. There is certainly the scandal of former journalist, Hariri chevalier, and Saudi courier ‘Uqab Saqr. Caught on tape (released by al-Akhbar), Saqr said he was involved in funneling arms, including rockets, into northern Syria from Lebanon and Turkey. (He denies this, saying that he is actually sending in blankets and milk for babies). The rebels begged him, implored him to fill their arsenal; he was aloof and nasty. It was a window into the kind of operation that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia runs.

The arms pipelines from northern Lebanon and the entry of terrified refugees have agitated the country. In Tripoli armed clashes across the Syrian divides continue, most recently on 9 December when at least six died in the gunfire.

The ICG’s exaggerations and omissions can be set aside for a moment. What the ICG report reveals is the atmosphere of fear that has begun to pervade the policy community.

The “stakes are too grave for Lebanon – the most vulnerable of Syria’s neighbors,” says the ICG, but they are no less grave for Turkey and Jordan. With a flare-up of the conflict between Ankara and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), and with the fragile authority of the Jordanian monarch tested by the recent protests, there is little comfort in Erdogan’s cabinet and in Abdullah II’s Privy Council. For Jordan, there are few pleasant memories of the uprisings in its substantial camps that ring Amman. The revolts of early November over inflation came from these areas, where suffering and protest has become a way of life for the Palestinians, whose new Syrian neighbors might learn their customs.

Turkey took the most advanced policy in favor of the rebellion. Ankara hoped that the Assad regime would crumble, but as the military phase of the rebellion went over a year with limited impact, the Erdogan cabinet balked. Assad, who had in 1998 thrown out the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan at the behest of Turkey, now pivoted in the other direction. He cleverly ceded northeastern Syria to various Kurdish groups, who are not averse to the PKK. Assad set a grave chess problem for Erdogan – increased PKK activity in Turkey derived from confidence about the new safe zone in Syria and threatened Erdogan with mayhem (violence broke in Hakkari province, with the PKK seizing control of Semdinli, and in Gaziantep province, where a bomb blast in the main city in August rattled the government).
Turkey’s standoff against Syria over the mortar attacks in October was a final gasp. Ankara turned quickly to Brussels. NATO headquarters had signaled no interest in the conflict, but the Turks wanted some kind of assurance. A promise of defensive batteries was the best that could come. Six Patriot batteries, two from each of the agreeable NATO states (German, Netherlands and the US), will take several weeks to set up and will not come anywhere near being sufficient to defend Turkey’s 560-mile border with Syria. It is an utterly symbolic gesture.

Turkey had gone ahead of the West in its call for the removal of Assad, and found, to its surprise that no Western power was willing to follow it. The geopolitical dynamics are not clear-cut. The Europeans and the US would like to manage a transition from Assad to another strongman and to maintain Syria’s role as the security guard for Israel’s northern border (since 1973). The West is not averse to political Islam in power, just as long as the new rulers properly manage the situation to the West’s advantage. The US and the Europeans were quick to come to terms with the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda. What they fear are the less manageable Islamists, the brigands who drive rough across the Libyan countryside, or who might emerge out of the bowels of the Syrian resistance. This latter option has led policy makers in Washington and Brussels to be circumspect about the opposition in Syria.

The US has affirmed its intention to ban the Jabhat al-Nusra (Front for the Aid of the People of the Levant), which seems to have a very small number of members. Al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria) appeared in early 2012, conducting massive bombing campaigns against military targets in Aleppo and elsewhere, which is what inflated their influence. The State department let squeak that the banning of al-Nusra should send a signal that the US would like to set aside the Islamists in the Syrian opposition and bring the liberals to the forefront. Such a policy was followed in Libya as well, where the Islamists were used to fight the Qaddafi regime and then attempted to be corralled after his fall.

WWord comes from Aleppo that al-Nusra and its partners have put into place an ambitious plan to set up a jihadisocial order. The International Crisis Group released a report in mid-October, Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, which provides a clear-cut assessment of the reasons for their growth. “Conditions were favorable,” writes the ICG, with Salafi preachers reaching out to the dislocated rural underclass, and as the violence escalated and hope for a resolution receded, “many flocked to Salafi alternatives.” As the Western bombers did not appear to pulverize Assad’s army, these groups found material support amongst the private money from the Gulf Arabs who “bolstered both the Salafis’ coffers and their narrative, in which Europe and the US figure as passive accomplices in the regime’s crimes.”

Small outfits such as al-Nusra shrink before the much more influential and largely unreported Syria Liberation Front (SLF). The SLF, unlike the Syrian National Army, is a platform for the various jihadi currents, funded by the Gulf Arabs and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose own vehicle, Liwaa al-Tawhid, has steadily built up its networks from its exile bases after being devastated in the 1980s. Aron Lund, author of Drömmen om Damaskus (The Dream of Damascus, SILC Förlag 2010) and regular contributor to SyriaComment, notes that these platforms have “an outsized political role, by pushing the parameters of the conflict towards sectarian violence and coloring international perspectives on the uprising.” This latter point is significant. Such news rattles Washington, where there is little appetite for the kind of blowback that all but a handful of Senators (McCain is the main doubter) fear might come from too generous support to such groups. Even if there is scaremongering from defenders of the Assad revolution or exaggerations from minorities who fear the next social order, the upshot is a skittish bureaucracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gone from all this is talk of the Syrian Contact Group, the regional platform pushed by Egypt and including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Turmoil in Egypt matched by rumbles in the Kurdish region of Turkey and the death agony around the Saudi monarch as well as an increased isolation of Iran has put the SCG into mothballs. It is perhaps the reason why UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met in Dublin on 6 December with Lavrov (Russia) and Clinton (US), with no regional actor in the room. Brahimi left the meeting saying that the situation in Syria is “very, very bad,” and that Russia, the US, and the UN would “continue to work together to see how we can find creative ways of bringing this problem under control and hopefully starting to solve it.” The word creative might upend all the moves afoot, but that is too optimistic a reading of the Dublin meeting. The most significant message was that despite Turkey going out on a limb, despite Lebanon and Jordan bearing the immense cost of the refugee crisis, and despite Egypt bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia to the same table, these regional actors have no role in the Brahimi process. The Contact Group remained in Cairo, with its tail between its legs.


III. Western Plans.

On 12 December, the Friends of Syria (FoS) met for their fourth conference in Marrakech, Morocco. Hilary Clinton could not go because she contracted a stomach virus. The FoS gave full political recognition to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). They stopped short of calling it the government in exile and naming a cabinet to take charge when the Assad regime falls. Two reasons prevented this from happening: firstly, the Russians would not countenance a new government that does not have parts of the Assad regime in place; secondly, the Syrian National Coalition itself is rife with disagreements, with more secular sections nervous about the increased power of political Islam in its combine. The declaration reiterated the integrity of Syria, called for an immediate ceasefire, and also recognized “the legitimate need for the Syrian people to defend themselves against the violent and brutal campaign of al-Assad regime.”

BBased on her reading of western intelligence reports, Hilary Clinton had said a week ago, “It appears as though the opposition in Syria is now capable of holding ground, that they are able to bring the fight to the government forces.” The recognition of the right of the Syrian people to “defend themselves” comes somewhat late in the game. Syrians have already been in the thick of an uneven military battle since at least September 2011. Massive casualties amongst the poorly armed and untrained fighters did not deter the resistance, which remarkably continued to take on a regime that was willing to use considerable force – having already demonstrated its cruelty with the arrest and torture of children in Banyas, Daraa, Damascus, Douma, Homs, and al-Tal, including the brutal torture and murder of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb on 29 April, 2011. The state security,Amn al-Dawla, the political security, Amn al-Siyasi, and the military security, Amn al-Askari, had no compunction about age or culpability; a young boy at a peaceful demonstration had to be crushed before the rebellion went into its armed phase. Such painful incidents hardened the opposition, whose resilience against the regime now seems to have turned the tide.

The US has decided to put its snout more deliberately into the process because, the New York Times notes, “it appeared the opposition fighters were beginning to gain momentum – and were becoming dominated by radical Islamists.” While the Eminencies gathered in Morocco, in Turkey, the rebel commanders formed the Supreme Military Council. Reports suggest that the Qataris and the Saudis had pushed for this formation to better canalize their military assistance. Radical Islamists who have been very effective in the Syrian battlefield are unwilling to be shut out of this Council even though the recently banned al-Nusra Front was not invited.

As a sign that al-Nusra might not be as marginal as the White House hopes, senior Brotherhood leader Mohammed Farouk Tayfour said that this decision was “too hasty.” Tayfour, who is the deputy comptroller general of the Brotherhood and on the executive board of the Council, is from Hama, bombed to oblivion in 1982 by the senior Assad, but not after Tayfour’s Combatant Vanguard, Attali'a el-Moukatillah, had itself taken the armed struggle to the regime. His group conducted the infamous Aleppo Artillery School massacre in 1979 against Alawite officers, so he has some sympathy for the means deployed by al-Nusra, and probably has an acute understanding that the West wishes to weaken the political Islamists in the future Syria.

Washington is in two minds about the harder edge of the Islamists, and their capability. New details of the Qatari arms pipeline in Libya have challenged the US on whether arming the Syrians rebels is a good idea. The Qataris, a US Defense Department official told The New York Times, were giving out weaponry to groups in Libya that are “more antidemocratic, more hard-line… closer to an extreme version of Islam.” One US arms dealer says that the Qataris had no method to their disbursement, “They just handed [weapons] out like candy.” Reports of rebel groups beheading children and massacring civilians (such as on 11 December in the ‘Alawite village of Aqrab in Hamah – several hundred reported dead or injured) bring an air of complexity to the Syrian conflict. The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi (Libya) sits between the lines of such stories.

The West is in a bind. There is reticence to arm fully the Syrian rebellion. This creates the potential for those who have been doing the arming (the Qataris and other Gulf Arabs) to influence the kinds of groups on the ground, which lean more to the side of extremism. If the West does not begin to send in more sophisticated weaponry, there is no guarantee that these would not go to the extremists anyway – since they, unlike the liberals, have a presence on the ground alongside the resistance committees, which are neither extremist nor run by the liberals. The Western backed liberals, in other words, will not be able to control or have purchase over the groups that get the arms. Such fears are not Washington’s alone. As the US signaled it would recognize the Coalition, Doctor Kamal Labwani, one of the most prominent liberals, said on 11 December from Turkey, “If the Americans want to recognize this Coalition then they take the responsibility of putting the Muslim Brotherhood in power and all the consequences that entails.”

A third theory is that the West covertly approves the support to the hardline groups, hoping that once the game is up for Assad, these irritants will be a worry to the liberals who will be weak and beholden to the West. This third theory suggests that there is less of a gap between the maneuvering of Qatar and the supposed reticence of the US government. My conversations with US policy makers suggests that things are not so clear to them, and that there is indeed a divide in the Obama White House, with one part of the apparatus very cautious about any on-the-ground action, and another part raring to go.

AAlerts from Tel Aviv over fears of an Islamist take-over of Syria play well amongst the Washington elite who does not want to extend the US into Syria. They prefer the bloodbath to continue, Syria be bled to death, and then the Opposition’s liberals miraculously show up in Damascus as the new leadership. Washington does not want a repeat of the Libyan Model for Syria. It prefers the Yemen Model, although with few options left in the inner circle around Assad, it will be left to one of the suits in the Coalition to take charge. Washington and Tel Aviv want Assadism without Assad, what is known as “authoritarian moderation,” (a term coined by Anthony Cordesman and Ahmed Hashim in 1997 regarding regime change in Iraq).

The Brotherhood holds forty seats of the Council’s one hundred twenty seats. This does not bother the US, which has had a long relationship with the Syrian Brotherhood, including using them as “surrogates” (in the words of former CIA officer Robert Baer) against the Assad regime since the 1980s. But the Israelis are allergic to the titular head of the Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib. Last year, al-Khatib wrote an essay in which he called Zionism “a cancerous movement,” insulting Israel’s governing ideology. There was no care that he differentiated this movement from “Jews as followers of a religion greatly respected in Islam.” It was enough that he is anti-Zionist to alert Tel Aviv to make the case against him, despite the fact that al-Khatib has moderated his views since his elevation in early November. The Israelis are nervous about the end of Assad. They liked their ambivalent dictator – he allowed them to brag about being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and he defended their border since 1973. Israel’s strategic defeat in Gaza must open a period of rethinking in Tel Aviv over whether it wants to risk one more hostile government on its borders.

The USS Eisenhower has now sailed into the Eastern Mediterranean. It would only have been allowed to approach the area around the Russian base of Tartus (Syria) if Moscow had given it permission to do so. Russia’s Prime Minister Putin was in Ankara, where he kissed the Pasha’s hand in the hope of increasing Russian-Turkish trade. There was bold talk about tripling the economic ties to warm up the frosty relations between these old Cold War adversaries. In Paris, Putin shrugged off the ties between Moscow and Damascus, “Russia has no special relations with President Assad. Such relations existed between the Soviet Union and his father, but they do not exist between our country and the incumbent Syrian President.” Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov told Argumenty & Fakty that his country was not prepared to back Assad to the very end, and that they were seeking to open direct talks between Ankara and Damascus to restart the stalled regional dialogue. It has become reasonably clear to Moscow that the Sultan of Damascus is fighting for his survival, and that this has left him with no options: there is no flexibility for Assad, so there is no influence for the Russians. They are seeking other avenues for their own national interest.

Russia’s fear is the expansion of NATO’s influence, and so Lavrov is worried about the NATO defensive batteries that will be set in place in southern Turkey. NATO has indicated on several occasions that it does not want to enter the conflict in Syria. The batteries are, NATO’s General Secretary Anders Fog Rasmussen indicated, the maximum position for the alliance. It comes alongside talk of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which is a legitimate fear given the casualness with which the Assad regime has used violence against the population. It is because of this casualness that Washington might wish to learn a lesson that Moscow has already digested: Assad is fighting to the very end, he feels that the lack of international action thus far (despite the forty thousand dead) gives him impunity to act, and the idea that he will go into exile in Latin America is a cruel joke against his overblown sense of his own patrimony.

TThe recognition of the Council by the US, the NATO batteries, the ships in the eastern Mediterranean, the familiar talk of WMDs – none of this will pressure Assad to negotiations. As the writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh put it in a recent interview from Damascus, the pressure on Assad, absent a change in the balance of forces on the ground, will only push him to more extreme steps of self-defense. “Whoever wants a serious negotiation with the regime must be stronger than the regime,” he notes. If the Russians begin to dry up their supply lines to the Syrian army, this will certainly further isolate and weaken it. Syrians who oppose Assad call the regime a “gang” or an “occupation force,” an indication that their fear of the regime has evaporated. All that remains for it is superiority in arms. When that will eventually cease, Assad will have to sue for peace. “This is a painful reality for our country,” says Saleh, “which makes it a playground for a very violent and large scale battle. But this is our situation, and we need to acknowledge it with a very clear mind. Illusions about the Assad regime may be more costly and more painful than anything that’s happened today.” The emphasis on the words our situation is very important. Syrians have this in hand, at great cost of life. If the West decides to enter on a White Horse now, it will be simply to take charge of the post-Assad situation. It will not be on humanitarian grounds.

A fragile hope rests on the revitalization of Syrian or 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. Perhaps it is too much to hope for its revival in the midst of this tortured struggle. The politics are bewildering, the human suffering, intolerable.

First published on Jadaliyya. Republished with author's permission.


More by :  Vijay Prashad

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