Illustration by Shenuka Corea

Syria, Until When?

With new sources running constant stories about the brutal war in Syria, one major faction is missing from the map: Syrians.

Mar 3, 2018

Today is Mar. 15, 2011. You are in Dar’aa, Syria, somewhere a hundred kilometers away from the capital. The media around you is talking about some form of spring – they say it marks a new dawn for Arab societies. You hear about the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, about Bouazizi and about protesters cheering for freedom, borrowing the same lines that those before them had used against the French not so long ago.
The Tunisian experience has begun to spread all across the Arab world. You are optimistic, yet scared, because you know the nature of Syria’s regime. You know that the night you wish to see fading has been long, dark and cold. You remember that Syria, being a police state, has been one big prison for the past fifty years or so, and that should anyone rebel, it would certainly not be the first time.
However, you also remember how the last time ended, and how the fates of some 20,000 victims, forty years later, remain unknown. In Assad’s Syria, sadism is the norm and this is why you were not surprised to see how the government decided to react when some teens painted graffiti on the walls that read: the people want the fall of the government.
Fast forward seven years later: Syria is an unrecognizable, fractured state. The small country is now divided into five smaller ones. The Syrian soil today is home to a barbaric dictator, a failed opposition (which, on its own, is an umbrella term for an uncountable number of groups and factions), two inhumane terrorist groups and a separatist movement. Dara’a is a ghost town. Raqqa is under rubble. Aleppo living in its possibly most tragic episode throughout all of its 13,000 years of existence. Even suburbs and little villages have been entirely erased.
Eastern Ghouta, once the living soul of Damascus’ Barada river, a breathing oasis where residents have always found peace and harmony in its fresh air is now gone. Under endless airstrikes by the regime, the region has been devastated so completely that the annihilation can even be seen from the sky.
What happened? There is no simple answer to that question, and any attempt to summarize the past seven years of Syrian history would not do the case any justice.
What started in Syria as a peaceful uprising has turned into the worst man-made disaster since World War II. About seven months into the protests, army generals began to defect, and Syrians realized that taking arms against the government was the only way to resist Assad, who continues to operate a scorched-earth policy against civilians. The fighting expanded to almost every corner of the country. Assad quickly lost control. A power vacuum opened and non-state actors rapidly joined in to fill in the void. The so-called Islamic State announced the caliphate and its capital, Syria’s Raqqa, while Kurdish militias proclaimed their own de facto autonomous region, Rojava, with its capital in Syria’s Qamishli. Neither self-proclaimed regions of course received any form of international recognition.
This power vacuum has also allowed groups such as Al-Qaeda, branded as the Al-Nusra Front, and later rebranded as the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, to appear for the first time in Syria. By getting involved in the mix, each additional group, arguably, weakened the original revolution, shattered the original opposition and paved the way for even more aggression, ultimately complicating things to the point where they stand today.
Now, the war is anything but Syrian.
The country’s geopolitical location, history and resources mean that its fate holds a pivotal role for future Middle Eastern and international politics. The complicated political context essentially transformed the war into one with both direct and indirect intervention by almost all surrounding and major world powers. I like to refer to the fighting at its current stage as one by invaders and between invaders, as each power has been attempting to fulfill its own interests in Syria through often unclear relations and an endlessly shifting network of allies and enemies.
The Syrian cake today is divided among superpowers between the United States and Russia, and regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. This division and intervention has made the carnage a result of a grand-scale, multi-layered confrontation through three scenarios: states directly attacking other states, directly attacking proxy groups of other states or indirectly funding proxy groups to attack those funded by other states.
The Assad-opposition divide is, for example, a double proxy war. The first being a Cold War-style dispute between the United States and Russia on practically all matters concerning Syria (very recently, the United States killed more than 200 Russian contract soldiers in oil-rich Deir ez-Zor), and the second, an embodiment of decades of Saudi-Iranian ideological conflict, with the latter holding onto the concept of “exporting the revolution” while playing on racial and sectarian notes by supporting and funding Assad, Hezbollah and Iraqi militants in Syria – all of whom are Shi’a Muslims fighting a Sunni-majority population and opposition - as well as sending its very own Revolutionary Guard to fight alongside Assad’s army.
And this is only one divide. Nevermind the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, nevermind ISIS which, for some reason, the Western world frames as the main concern in the war and everyone claiming to be fighting them, and nevermind the casual Israeli airstrikes on Damascus – which, ironically, Assad says break Syrian sovereignty whatever is left of that. Frankly, the cake and the musical notes analogies I provided are misleading at best, because they imply sweetness; when, in fact, one major faction is missing from the map: Syrians.
It is perhaps obvious at this point that decisions made in the field are not produced in Damascus or any Syrian city under any other side’s influence. The decisions today are made in cities like Washington DC and Moscow; and those paying for these decisions are Syrian men, women and children. The past seven years have been extremely disastrous with 10 million domestic and international refugees, 2 million injured, half a million dead and 60,000 missing.
A country with a population of roughly 20 million is currently producing the largest number of refugees in the world. The sounds that Syrian children today wake up to are those of chemical weapons, white phosphorus munitions, barrel, cluster and other types of bombs.
Every aspect of the war I have mentioned so far amount to an endless list of war crimes: ethnic cleansing, genocides and torture. And those are the things we know – every now and then a shocking discovery is made, such as the Caesar leaks of Assad’s torture chambers and Saydnaya military prisons secret hanging of 13,000 Syrians.
The revolution against Assad has confirmed one thing what we already knew: the international system’s complete failure to act, despite the endless bloodshed.
"Believe me, the terrible crimes committed in Syria I neither saw in Rwanda nor ex-Yugoslavia. We thought the international community had learned from Rwanda. But no, it learned nothing,” said Carla del Ponte, a top UN Syria inspector who “gave up” and resigned because of the UN’s failure to find a solution.
The UN’s most recent achievement, other than a ceasefire that was broken within minutes is releasing a blank statement on Eastern Ghouta that reads “No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones.” As short as it is, this statement does, coincidentally, resemble the past seven years worth of UN efforts in Syria: nonexistent and meaningless.
The war is still going on because the system might be stuck.
Russia continues to support Assad diplomatically on the international scene by vetoing Security Council drafts. But one could also argue that the war is far from being over not because of Assad, who is a lost bet at this point, but because the great powers are yet to find a suitable shared scenario that fulfills their objectives. Indeed, a new political axis was formed by an unexpected coalition comprised of Russia, Turkey and Iran to find a peaceful resolution to Syria’s problems.
These efforts were already dead upon arrival, because the country promising support to Syrians is the same one that practically saved Assad from falling before international intervention and assisted him in exterminating entire communities and regions. After continual abortion of the UN-sponsored Geneva peace talks by Assad, Russia worked on creating a series of talks for a political transition that fits its agenda, partly by poisoning the already-lost Syrian opposition with Moscow-supported puppet opposition parties, which, ridiculously, share Russia and Assad’s vision for future Syria.
The most recent series of talks were the Sochi talks, a truly embarrassing fiasco that was nothing but a one-sided diplomatic shitshow – pardon the vulgarity, but no other word describes the situation more accurately. As you can guess, then, all of these conferences were, in essence, useless: and we cannot expect so much from negotiating with dictators.
The past seven years have been truly ugly, and no writer will ever be able to convey the true suffering of Syria’s mothers, fathers and children. In their homes, on the streets, or deep down somewhere in the Mediterranean: Syrians are dying everyday. They can call it a civil war, a revolution, a crisis, or whatever they wish it to be.
I don’t know how it will end – and no one knows either, for that matter.
All I know is that, now or later, the Spring we protested to see will blossom, that the dawn will appear, and that in exactly eleven days from now, Syrians from New York to Berlin and Malmö to Istanbul will gather in the streets and sing the same old chants from 2011, renewing their faith in a free, dignified and independent Syria.
“From inside the graves and under the soil, the voices of people who died will continue to chant: long live Syria and down with Assad.” Moustafa Jacoub, Facebook.
Yaman Maarrawi is a contributing writer. Email him at
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