Syria: Is it a War Within?

By SYED MAFIZ KAMAL

Note: This is a guest post. Content may or may not reflect my own opinions.

Those who are closely observing the situation in Syria will testify that it is not only a complex conflict of internal civil disorder, but it is now a “world problem”. The Syrian conflict has elongated for 2 years since it was sparked by the zeal of Arab Springs in summer of 2011. Before going any further I invite you to erase all pre-thoughts about Syria being an internal issue of simple civil war or as more eloquently stated “A War Within”. Let’s look at the major stake holders: Assad regime, rebel forces, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Russia and the US. Then there are numerous sub-stakeholders, some including: sub groups such -as Alawaites, Kurds & Islamic fronts- within Syria, Gulf Countries, the Arab League, the UN and the international community. Then there are the people whose lives are directly dismantled by the conflict: refugees, internally displaced people, the business communities invested in Syria, policy makers, the fighters and the politicians.  So, as you can begin to imagine: Syria is not a “War Within”, as many pundits especially in media –including Al Jazeera’s segment “Syria: War Within”- would allude to. The narrative “War Within” essentially implies to civil war which simplifies the complex nature of the conflict we see in this second decade of the 21st Century.

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Kurdish anti-Syrian government activists parade the in the city of Derik, near al-Malikiyah, Syria. (Source: Getty Images)

This post is not about defining civil war or interpreting the notion of the “War Within”. I am not a scholar who studies civil war. But here I am attempting to bring the dangers of thinking Syria in simple internal conflict terms. I understand that every conflict is complex but arguing which conflict around the planet is an internal conflict issue is beyond the scope of this post. Hereby I will lay down some core features of Syrian conflict and let the readers infer the nature of Syrian conflict. As I jump into the analysis of the policy prescription for the Syrian conflict, it is important to cast light on two features of the conflict: 1) “What’s happening in Syria” and 2) “What are the current options on table to tackle the conflict”.

What’s happening in Syria? Too much, a lot, un-documentable developments! Well, the truth is it will take ages for analysts and historians to dissect the core and periphery of the Syrian Uprising and the following prolonged conflict. I have no doubt that books will be written on the situation and yet little justice will be done in explaining the phenomenon. However, as per my understanding I would jot down few developments to frame the context as of now. There are over 1.2 million refugees in neighboring countries including Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Over 70,000 people have lost their lives, and more have been injured in the conflict. Heinous crimes of systematic rapes, extortion, torture and similar acts of moral decay have escalated since the onset of the conflict. Lauren Wolfe, from The Atlantic, has thoroughly jotted down a study conducted on systematic rapes in her article “Syria Has a Massive Rape Crisis”. I recommend at least glancing through the piece, to just get a feel of the horror situation in ground. In midst of all the conflict Syria faces a dark future for its children and its youth. The UN has warned that Syrian conflict is creating a “Lost Generation” (link to the report). Ongoing fighting between Assad regime forces and Syrian rebel forces is reaching a stalemate with constant anticipation of “victory in sight” by both sides. Syrian opposition have politically mobilized themselves with their newly “elected government” under leadership of Ghassan Hitto. Of course, the legitimacy, sustainability and the stability of the “government” is yet to be tested despite the leadership.

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A Syrian woman near a fire at a refugee camp in Azaz, Syria, on December 17, 2012. Cold Winter! (Source: AP)

Of all I can do, as an observer, is acknowledge the “Syrian internal case” as a top issue in the conflict and every variable at stake –deaths, rapes, economic indicators, political infighting, etc- is going to deteriorate as time proceeds. As an observer, I am ill equipped to paint a detailed and dissected image of the Syrian internal power politics and its internal culture of key interests. I believe, one should do their own research to have an understanding of the internal political situation. To get started I would recommend exploring the blog of Syria policy pundit Joshua Landis “Syria Comment”.Come to the issue of Syrian internal politics. Sectarianism and societal dynamics of power politics is sure prevalent and highly significant factor of the Syrian conflict. Whether Alawites will hold on to power or Islamists to take control or secular regime will unite the country, is yet to be seen. The blow to Syrian economy is alarming. The economy has shrunk by 15% annually since the start of the conflict. Shadow economy has risen. And, opportunities for people are diminishing. Al Arbaiya in an article “The cost of war: Syria’s economy pays a painful price” jots some bullet point on how the Syrian economy is being hurt as of this moment in the conflict. Economic indicators are painful to observe and will surely create more grievances for conflict in Syria.

Moving here after is the issue of Syria being a regional conflict. Let’s try to touch on some top variables of regional importance. A fear of Syrian conflict spilling over has been a reality in neighboring countries, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Many argue that it has already spilled over. We see conflict arising along with government incapacity in Lebanon with cases of violence directly related to Syrian issue. Similar reports of violence-eruptions have been seen from Iraq. The future of refugees is undecided. The Gulf nations are arming the rebel fighters. NATO have had deployed Patriot missiles in Turkey, to be prepared for any escalation. Israel is worried about chemical weapons, that the Syrian regime posses, and whether they will be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Moreover, the Assad Regime is not without allies. It has Iran and Hezbullah as sympathizers, along with international players like Russia & China who appeals to understand the Regime’s side of the conflict. In short, Syria does not get easier as you zoom out. Still it is important to understand Syria as a regional problem in the heart of Middle East.

Damage in a street at the al-Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs, Syria on November 19, 2012. (Source: Reuters)

Now let’s divert our attention to a Syria which is a “world problem” requiring international actors to play their cards in order to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the nation. The US backed by its Western allies is worried about developments in Syria every second. Obama has already declared that “Assad has to go because he lost legitimacy”. But as a pragmatic foreign policy approach, all options lie on the table but a robust policy option is yet to be opted for. Rhetoric has not been matched by actions. Obama visited the Middle East to highlight the significance of the issue. Aid for refugees and reassurance for NATO ally Turkey has been provided. The question is whether to arm the rebels. The reluctance lies because the Islamists might capitalize on the opportunity. Then there is the question of forming a no-fly-zone on Syria. But that would call for a UN Security Council consent, which Russia & China are reluctant to give. Recently no-fly-zone resolution for Libya has been misused by NATO which understandably angered the Russians. In this case, it is more strategic for Russia because Russia has been a Syrian regime sympathizer. To say the least, Russia –with China by its side- has been an obstacle for Western and Arab coalition to unseat Assad regime. Hence, it is clear that the international community is not on the same page in understanding the “Syrian problem”.

Having framed my understanding of the conflict, I want to shortly touch on “What are the current options on table to tackle the conflict”. As mentioned above, a lot of it can come from international actors. Syrian conflict and any stake in the conflict will keep accelerating if comprehensive conflict resolution approach is not applied. Arming the Syrian rebels is the big one which is hanging out there. And I have no doubt that policy makers are getting intelligence briefs on whether that is a viable option to pursue. Providing logistics and training for rebels. It is already being done in Jordan. American troops are training the rebels about military strategy and logistics. Forming a legitimate “government in exile” for Syria is of utmost importance, if “Assad has to go”. The current Prime Minister, an installed American from Texas, “Ghassan Hitto” will be scrutinized by Syrians. And, we are already seeing it if we hear Syrian commentators expressing their opinions. Serious government –not supernational installment-, with legitimacy derived from people, have to be installed for a viable future. Another option is to negotiate with Assad regime. This also needs to be considered seriously if no end to violence is to be seen. The tone “Assad must go” would need to tune down if this policy window seems like a solution. A coalesced government can be formed in order to bring an end to the violence. In the midst of all this, refugees have to be at the top of agenda.

Humanitarian aid need to be in more abundance if the regional and international community is serious about future of Syria. The UN can play a big role but as UN personnel Jan Eliasson said as of now UN seems to be the “only show in town” to work in a post conflict Syria. Smart policies should strive bringing more “shows in town”. As part of policy prescription, I highly recommend Women leadership and involvement in policy decision making process today and anytime else. There has to be more women in Syrian conflict resolution process. More women in leadership positions! With such gross developments of rapes and other dehumanized developments in Syria, fabric of the society would start tearing apart if there is no engrained women or youth voices in moving Syria forward. Any futuristic policy has to first aim for stability in Syria with apt security apparatus in place. If any vacuum prevails, chaos will erupt. Syria shouldn’t be prematurely rushed to adopt neo-liberal economic policies of opening markets and putting its people under austerity. Early entry into such competitive economic policy group leads to sustaining grievances, as we see in Iraq.

And finally, then there is the option of humanitarian intervention! The rapes, killings and heinous crimes might get so gross that the world has to intervene militarily to stop the violence. So, the question is where to draw the line in order to write a policy prescription.  Is it 1.2 million refugees (more than half children), millions more internally displaced, 80% increase in reported rapes, a “lost generation” or a broken economy with mass poverty? Or, will it take an event of global shock such as Srebrenica? I believe policy is about perspective. And, as we all realize Syrians are the real victims here! As we move ahead with policy implementation, one thing needs to be considered: how will the history of Syrian conflict be written in an ever globalizing 21stCentury.

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An injured child stands outside their tent at a camp for displaced Syrians in the village of Atmeh, Syria. Children are the main victims of this conflict. (Source: AP)

*** This post reflects some segments of my personal understanding of the Syrian conflict. By no means could I claim to have written down all variables involved in the Syrian Conflict. There is no right or wrong message that could be signaled from this post. In other words, the post is aimed to learn about Syrian situation, and not to dictate about it. Let us keep the conversation going and hope history is written sooner than later.

Syed Mafiz Kamal is a graduate student at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Follow me on Twitter: @rjamesbarrete

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