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Syrian quagmire: From deconstruction to despair

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury from Falls Church, Virginia, United States | April 04, 2019 00:00:00

No country has suffered more from the aftermath of Arab Spring, as much Syria- the breeding home of Arab language and culture. What began as a peaceful demonstration in Damascus demanding civil liberty, equal opportunity and end of corruption in 2011, culminated in a full-scale, bloody civil war that brought colossal damage and destruction to the country. About half a million people died, six million left the country and remaining half of the population became displaced. Not a single family can be found who have not lost a loved one and not a town or habitation can be traced that has been spared of destruction. Assad regime which brutally responded to the protest demanding good governance eight years ago still presides over the destiny of the country.

Those who proclaim the "government comes and goes but the country remains" should rephrase the adage. Syria has been torn apart, but Basher al-Assad remains the president of the country.

During the civil war, Syria has undergone a transformation. While the overwhelming population lost homes, jobs and opportunities, a small avaricious group emerged from the mayhem, accumulated wealth and turned out to be the de-facto rulers of the country. They have secured access to the bastion of power and wield authority to share benefits among themselves and their associates. "About 3 to 4 per cent of the population possess vast majority of the wealth, and for the rest, life is just a struggle," a resident has observed recently. The sprawling middle class, which had secured a decent standard of living, had jobs and owned businesses, prior to the war, are no longer in sight. Either they have migrated abroad or perished under the rubbles of the civil war.

Conditions are reportedly cataclysmic in Syria. About one-third of the country remains beyond the writ of the government. But with the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) forces at the hands of Syrian Kurds backed by the US air power, tranquillity may dawn all over the country. It remains uncertain whether the Kurdish-populated area adjoining Turkish border would come under Assad administration any time soon. Kurds fought heroic battles against IS fighters and destroyed the so-called caliphate. But Ankara is concerned at the resurgence of Syrian Kurds who in concert with Turkish Kurds could pose a threat to Turkey's territorial integrity. Ankara has been pressing the US to withdraw troops before the Syrian Kurds can assert their authority over the territory bordering Turkey. President Trump agreed while the former Defence Secretary General Mattis argued against immediate withdrawal. The disagreement led to the resignation of General Mattis in December last year.

Those in Syria, who remained loyal to Assad regime during the last eight years, are now growing increasingly disenchanted with the situation marked by high unemployment, soaring prices of essential food items and non-availability of basic services. Abut 89 per cent of the population are living on handouts from the agencies of the United Nations. The supplies from Iran and Iraq, mostly transported through highways, are often intercepted by local warlords and the distribution mechanism has been overtaken by the corrupt officials. The recent sanction on the shipment of Iranian goods and services has compounded the difficulties in bringing large quantities of essential items from Iran. In the process, "black marketing" has flourished.

People had pinned hope following official propaganda that with the cessation of hostility, wealthy Arab neighbours would make huge investments into the rehabilitation of infrastructure; the Chinese package for rebuilding the country would take off and private investment from European companies would open job opportunities for the millions. But it is unlikely that foreign investment would be forthcoming until peace and tranquillity prevail in major urban areas.

Inmates at the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are keen to return home but the Syrian government has not yet made any public announcement asking these people to come home. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) organises the repatriation of refugees. But in absence of commitment from the host government ensuring security of the returnees, UNHCR will not initiate the transportation of refugees from the camps. Assad government does not seem exuberant about early return of the refugees. If it wishes to welcome only those who have not had an involvement in the anti-government activities, the entire process of repatriation would fall under jeopardy.

A political settlement of the crisis is a prerequisite for rebuilding the country and repatriation of the refugees. The Russian-led peace initiative, endorsed by the United Nations, proposed redrafting of the constitution with a provision of accommodating the opposition in the government and sharing of power among the president, cabinet and the parliament. This would presuppose conceding absolute power of the president. Once agreed, it would require acquiescence of the United States, Turkey and Iran to be implemented. It is not clear how much co-habitation Assad would relish with his former adversaries who had fought for his removal from power.

During all this, Arab neighbours realised that they have suffered a diplomatic setback by joining the US-led anti-Assad coalition. Saudi Arabia and UAE even participated in the airstrikes on targets inside Syria. Syria was expelled from the Arab League in 2011 and thereby Arab states shutdown channels of dialogue with the Assad regime. Syria gradually moved closer to Iran who provided much needed military support. Since no tangible efforts were made by the Arab League to seek Russian involvement in diffusing the crisis, Moscow embraced Assad regime and deployed navy and ground troops to counter rebel forces in 2015. By 2018, the rebel forces were pushed back, and Syrian army started retaking the lost territories. Now almost 70 per cent of Syrian territory has come under government control.

Arab neighbours have found with dismay that Iran and Turkey, two non-Arab countries, have established political influence in Syria, in the heart of Arab world while the Arab countries have no influence there. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir made a visit to Damascus late last year, the first in eight years. The UAE Foreign Minister visited in January and decided to reopen its embassy in Damascus. But the United States have cautioned the Arabs against establishing diplomatic relations with Syria prior to a political settlement. Egypt and Saudi Arabia prefer a "wait-and-see" policy until a meaningful political solution is reached, and Iranian troops are withdrawn from Syrian territory. Moscow, however, advised Arab states that resumption of diplomatic relations with Damascus would enable Assad to let Iran de-induct its forces from Syria. Re-induction of Syria in the Arab League will be a significant step towards normalisation of relations with the Arab states.

During his visit to Tehran last week, President Assad underscored the depth of relationship between the two arch-enemies of the United States. Assad is cognisant of the reality that Syria would need about US$ 400 billion to rebuild its infrastructure and restore essential services and only the Gulf countries could invest significant amount. Nonetheless, relation with Tehran runs deep and it is likely to remain so in near future.

On March 25, 2019, Trump recognised Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights which Israel had captured in 1967. The UN Resolution 242 reiterated Syrian sovereignty over Golan Heights and demanded Israel withdraw from the occupied territory. Trump has shown wanton disregard to international laws and has taken one illegal decision after another in favour of Israel. Last year, he recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and it will not be surprising if he recognises Israel's sovereignty over the West Bank in near future. Trump has been squandering the trust and confidence of the United States gained in the Middle East by the previous administrations. His insouciant actions will accelerate instability in the region.

Amidst all this, Russian President Putin adroitly navigated his strategy. In December 2017, he visited Russian airbase in Syria and congratulated his troops for scoring victory in the war. He then flew to Cairo and signed $21 billion deal with Egyptian President Sissi to build a nuclear power plant. Putin then joined Turkish President Erdogan in Ankara and condemned US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. In such a way, Putin has demonstrated that Russia has emerged as an indispensable power in the Middle East.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.

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