By Emma Emeozor
On Tuesday, the Syrian government intensified its bombardment of the east of the country’s largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo, determined to cleanse it of rebels who have taken control of the area. Within three days, 150 deaths were recorded and many people injured. Now, Syria and its staunch ally, Russia is beckoning on United States President-elect Donald Trump for support to end the war.
“What we want from the new administration is not just to stop support (for armed groups)… but to curb those regional powers that are supporting those groups… we have to wait,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalem said on Sunday during a televised news conference in Damascus. On its part, Russia is seeking Trump’s support for airstrikes to eradicate the Islamic State in Syria. President Barack Obama opposed any airstrikes and even threatened to impose no-fly zones in Syria to check Russia’s airstrikes.
The Obama administration stop short of implementing the no-fly zones’ policy for fear that it could lead to world war. During the US presidential campaign, Trump disagreed with Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Syria. While Pence suggested the “use of force” against Assad, Trump dismissed the idea. Putin is one leader in the heart of Trump. The thinking among observers of international affairs is that the two leaders may see eye-to-eye on burning international issue, including the Syria crisis.
Russian news agencies quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on Thursday as saying Russia has started contacting Trump’s team in relation to Syria. A Putin-Trump rapprochement could be the only approach to ending the Syrian war. Trump card could be the much needed answer to the crisis.
The battle for Aleppo started in 2012. In Aleppo, it is the sound of guns that determines the direction people run to. Residents of Idlib, Homs and Ghouta provinces are not left out in this unending nightmare.
The hope that peace will return to Syria soon is dim. January 1, 2016, was the deadline the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) fixed for Syria to “form a broad-based forum comprised of Assad’s government and opposition groups.” In November 2015, when the group took the decision, the expectation was that, within six months, the forum would put in place a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian transitional government that would determine the schedule for drafting a new constitution.” Thereafter, “within 18 months, a free and fair UN-supervised election would be held.”
The ISSG also agreed that “the violence should come to an end through a ceasefire in ‘parallel’ to the process of political transition. Almost a year after, the ISSG peace plan has remained unachievable. The two major foreign actors in the conflict, Russia and the United States, continue to play intrigues and trade blame for the failure of peace moves. Arab leaders were unprepared for the Arab Spring, which spread across the region, beginning with the Tunisian revolution (also known as Jasmine Revolution) on December 18, 2010. The Tunisian crisis started when a 26-year-old man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after the police stopped him from selling fruit in the street to earn a living. The mass protests that followed swept President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.
However, the situation was different in other Arab countries, including Syria. Here, pro-democracy protests in the southern city of Deraa in 2011 immediately translated into civil uprising. Pro-democracy groups seized on the arrest and torture of some teenagers said to have painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. Several people were killed as security forces opened fire on them.
The authorities’ use of force to quell the demonstrations met stiff resistance from a people who were already inspired by the success of the Tunisian revolution. Their demand: President Bashar Assad must resign and reforms carried out. The president was accused of running a repressive government. Assad has persistently denied the allegation. At the time, the Assad family had been in power for 40 years, as the current president succeeded his father.
The irony of the Syrian situation is that Arab political commentators had ruled out the Arab Spring spreading to the country. Then, they strongly argued that the uprising would stop at Syria’s border. Cairo Review quoted Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident and former fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, as saying, “Syria is not ready for an uprising,” because the preparatory organising at the grassroots that led to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt was absent in Syria. The journal also quoted Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma as saying that an “important factor is that Al-Assad is popular among young people.” But history has proved them wrong.
Six years on, Assad has not resigned and the country has remained in a messy conflict. It was a miscalculation for Syrians to have allowed international powers to determine their destiny. Today, they seem to be paying for ignoring the national interest for personal and sectional interests. The situation has been further compounded with the emergence of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Terrorists now occupy 50 per cent of the country. Now, not even war experts and political pundits are able to predict when peace will return to the country.
The crisis in Syria could have been nipped in the bud just as it was in Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Morocco and Bahrain but for the costly mistakes made by both local and foreign actors: In Tunisia, President Ali did not cling to power. It was a matter of choice between ego and personal interest on the one hand and national interest on the other hand. He opted to abdicate the throne and went on exile. There were negotiations between protesters and the government leading to reforms and peace. In Syria, the battle line was drawn without considerations of ‘win-win’ outcomes. The president, still living in the past, adopted brute force to silence the opposition. While some members of the opposition fled the country, others took up arms to fight back.
Analysts of the Syrian conflict agree that regional powers, particularly Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia “played a destructive role by turning the conflict into a proxy war.” Russia, Iran and the West (particularly the US) also intervened for reasons of achieving geo-strategic interests. Thus they funded the militias to fight one another on the one and the government to fight the opposition on the other hand.
The US made a blunder in its support of rebels when it supplied them with weapons, believing they would use the weapons to degrade the Syrian forces. But the weapons ended up in the hands of the terrorists as some of the rebels moved on to join terror groups, including the IS. Syria has since remained a theatre for a war of supremacy between Russia and the US. Though US-led coalition began airstrikes against IS in Syria on September 23, 2014, the Obama administration called on Assad to resign on August 2011. At the time, Obama said Assad’s pledges of reform had “rung hollow while he (was) imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people.”
On Assad’s continued stay in power, Obama was confident when he said: “It is clear that President Assad believes that he can silence the voices of his people by resorting to the repressive tactics of the past, but he is wrong. As we have learned these last several months, sometimes the way things have been is not the way that they will be. It is time for the Syrian people to determine their own destiny, and we will continue to stand firmly on their side.”
But Obama, the European Union and others who thought that ‘their’ rebels could bulldoze Assad from power have been proved wrong. Even in the face of the raging war, Assad conducted elections on June 3, 2014, and he was re-elected. He has said he would relinquish power only through the ballot box and not through any form of ‘coup.’
Meanwhile, Russia and China have remained faithful supporters of the Assad government, giving the president protection even against the interest of the ‘oppressed’ masses.
It is no secret that Moscow wants to protect a key naval facility, which it leases at the Syrian port of Tartous. The port serves as Russia’s “sole Mediterranean base for its Black Sea Fleet, and it has forces at an air base in Latakia, President Assad’s Shia Alawite heartland. Those in the opposition, including the rebels, are dominantly Sunnis. This explains the unflinching support Iran is giving its Shiite brother, Assad. Iran is the headquarters of the Shiite world. Again, this explains Saudi Arabia’s antagonism towards Assad and his continued stay in power.
In August 2016, Assad got a pledge of reinforcement from China, further boosting his capacity in negotiations with the rebels. China pledged to provide military training and humanitarian aid in Syria. China and Russia are prominent members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
SCO is made up of 17 countries that “are either prominent members or partners, which include Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan and countries in Central Asia.” And “though economic in nature, it has become more of a counter-terrorism body.” The takeover of territories in Syria by terrorists has provided n excuse for foreign powers to meddle in the affairs of the country.
Why peace must be allowed in Syria
The incoming United Nations Secretary General, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antόnio Guterres, once said of the crisis in Syria, “We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago.”
At least 450,000 have been killed, 4.8 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, 6.6 million were recorded as internally displaced persons and one million requested asylum in Europe. No fewer than 50,000 children have been killed.
Every day, the international media is awash with stories of murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances of civilians. There are reports of human suffering from the deliberate blocking of access to food, water and health services. The World Food Programme has warned that “food production across the country has hit an all-time low.”According to Reuters, the government reached an agreement to buy wheat from Russia, but how many families will benefit? Of course, when supplied, it would be distributed in only government-controlled territories.
Sieges have become a method of war just as the country has become the ‘official’ home of terrorists.