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Three years on, the Syrian civil war has been internationalised beyond recognition — to the detriment of an indigenous conflict resolution process. As ‘hidden’ and ‘not-so-hidden’ hands of morbid foes meddle deeper into the unabated civil conflict, the embattled country and its many warring factions, local and global, increasingly draw resonance with the Spanish civil war nearly 80 years ago.There is, however, one difference. The moral flame that motivated leftists and republicans and their monarchist adversaries to fight one another on behalf of democracy or nationalism, is in the case of Syria being snuffed out by the immorality of seemingly a ‘war of all against all’ (bellium omnium contra omnes) – as Hobbes would put it.
A nation divided
Syria today is not just a country that stands in ruin. It is also a state without a modicum of civility in terms of political leadership. The Assads and Co. would (and do) fight to the bitter end in a conflict where the name of the game has become self-preservation and not even remotely a matter of ‘higher morality’ – ideals bigger than oneself, one’s sect, and one’s clan or ideology. And the country’s civil society has so far failed to grasp the art of the possible in order to gain remission from the vagaries of a revolution gone completely wrong.
The surrounding unruliness does not help as hired and volunteer jihadis add a layer of complication to the intractable conflict, further prolonging the country’s miasma and trauma. The upshot is a state of affairs where the light at the end of the tunnel is a long way away.
Specifically, the search for an exit from the brutal conflict — that has displaced nearly one-fifth of the country’s population and left nearly 150,000 dead of whom twenty per cent are non-warring children and women – is haunted by the spectre of paralysis within the international community and the Arab sub-system.
The perils of an international response
The question that seems to recur with regular frequency is whether to intervene or not intervene in Syria. As if Russians and Americans, Saudi and Iranians, Shiites and Sunnis, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, democrats and fascists, and peaceniks and jihadis are not already acting out their differences in the Syrian political and military theatres, either directly or by proxy. For the US and its allies, whether they intervene or not, as in the past it will be a case of ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’.
As for Arabs, they have nothing new to add but jockeying for self-promotion and regional status and offering petrodollars to clients of all political colour from within the Syrian opposition, now used to the comfort of five-star hotels and shielded from the rugged terrains of battle and refuge along the Jordanian and Turkish borders.
Thus far the four-pronged Arab diplomatic approach of hiring Western war machines and guns, sponsoring Syrian oppositional sides, bankrolling jihadis, and severing ties with the Syrian regime have more or less yielded zero results. The only gain for Saudi Arabia may have been sending their own Qaida terrorists to their deaths in Syria’s killing fields.Thus far Turkey has acted with utmost self-restraint, knowing too well that war – as was the case with the Kurdish KKP – is not congenial to solid economic performance and democratic and stable order. Changing course on this front will ruin Turkey even if Saudis or others foot the war bill. It is inconceivable that an Erdogan who has just been emboldened by renewed electoral success is about to throw away Turkey’s political and economic achievements of the past decade for anyone. In this respect, Turkey has taken a leaf from the EU book: long and unpredictable wars without assured victory are not worth human lives, money or national prestige.
Syria’s war has once again proved the Iranian side’s stomach for the trials of international diplomacy and stamina for enduring political battle even with limited resources and morally fragile allies such as the Assad regime. One stroke of genius that stands at testament to Iranian cunning is handing over Syria’s chemical weapons to the international community – instead of their own alleged nuclear programme.
What originally broke out in March 2011 as promising and peaceful anti-regime protests, seeking to emulate Arab Spring peoples’ triumphs over dictators such as in Egypt and Tunisia, has three years on morphed into a quagmire for Syrians above all else. As Abu Khalid, a friend who has lost dozens of loved ones from his extended family, verbalises his own trauma, one captures only a snapshot of the unfolding human tragedy in which tens of thousands like him are today so common.
He is both a committed revolutionary and devout who thinks that all Syrians have now transcended a certain threshold of sensitivity to violence: “death is scattered everywhere, and when you don’t see it, it sees you, lurking to strike mercilessly from the sky, from underneath the ground you walk on, and from the daily shrieks of grief of those losing loved ones without knowing why.” Whilst he is committed to the overthrow of the regime, in his own words “the price has exceeded anything reasonable to expect of any nation on earth…we are all responsible for killing politics and killing Syria. We keep on fighting because we don’t wish to admit loss of purpose, of reason, and of Syria itself.”
Hamza, another friend who has now left Syria laments the internationalisation of the conflict and blames it for the tragedy. He speaks of hating his own neighbourhood in northern Syria. “Revolution or no revolution, I could not understand why foreign fighters have to change my town, and impose their own rules on it…I don’t see how bearded Tunisians, Saudis and Algerians, speaking different dialects, and knowing nothing about what we locals actually want can arrive in my town to build their own vision of an Islamic state…I don’t see what their private dream of a ‘Caliphate’ has anything to do with the Syrian revolution.”
Three years on, what is certain is there are multiple narratives of ‘Syria’ today, and these are local and international. In contesting what kind of future and order to give to the various narratives of Syria, the likelihood is that Syrians and foreigners through competing structures and discourses of power are knowingly and unknowingly implicated in the ravaging of lives and an entire generation of children who, if they outlive the gun and shell fire and airstrikes threatening civilian neighbourhoods, will be scarred with memories of the terror and the massacre.