Perhaps no situation is currently more volatile than the one in Syria. Commenting on it is another matter: open your mouth to make a statement in the wrong company and before the words are fully formed you’ll either be branded a Putin and Assad apologist, war-hungry neocon, genocide denier, secret Islamist, or Kurdish detractor.
To make sense of the tangled situation and the main powers at play, I spoke with Julie Lenarz who is a Director at the Human Security Centre. Lenarz writes for The Telegraph, International Business Times, CNN, and has also appeared on the BBC and LBC.
The following is our exchange.
Malhar Mali: Tough ask: Can you lay out the Syria situation concisely, the actors and organizations at play and their goals?
Julie Lenarz: First of all it’s worth keeping in mind that the Syrian uprising started as a peaceful and legitimate protest by the people against an oppressive regime as part of the Arab Spring movement that swept across the Middle East. It was the Assad regime that reacted with extreme and disproportionate force and laid the grounds for what eventually turned into the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Years of indiscriminate attacks on civilians created the environment in which extremism flourished. All red lines have been crossed.
At this point, you can broadly distinguish between the following factions: a) The Syrian regime and pro-regime militia like Hezbollah; b) Salafi-Jihadist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra as well as Islamist-nationalist organisations such as Ahrar al-Sham; c) the secular opposition spearheaded by the Free Syrian Army (they have hundreds of different sub-entities with different alliances); d) and other interest groups such as Kurdish, Assyrian, and Turkmen forces that operate primarily in the north of Syria.
Any attempt to draw a clear distinction between the “religious” and “secular” or “moderate” and “extremist” opposition is inherently flawed. We’re looking at a spectacularly complex matrix of groups with overlapping interests, resulting from short-or long-term objectives as well as political or ideological motivations.
However, international concerns about a growing “Islamisation” of the conflict are certainly justified. Islamist and jihadist organisations have hijacked a significant part of the Syrian revolution and have become the major opposition vehicle in the fight against the regime — roughly 30 percent of the opposition are jihadists and an additional 30 percent Islamists. That means close to 70,000 fighters in Syria share major ideological components with Islamic State: their primary goal is to impose the religion of Islam at gunpoint.
The Islamist and jihadist organisations receive financial assistance from across the Muslim world, notably from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. The regime enjoys the patronage of Russia and Iran, while the secular opposition as well as Kurdish forces and their affiliates are supported by the US-led coalition. As a result, the Syrian conflict has turned into a proxy war between the US and Russia. For the first time since the 1980s, the Russian military finds itself in direct combat with forces trained and supported by the CIA.
The “Islamisation” of the Syrian revolution and the proxy war between the US and Russia have hindered any coherent response to the crisis and allowed the regime and terrorist organisations to kill hundreds of thousands of people with no end in sight. The conflict has turned into a Gordian knot, impossible to disentangle.
MM: Is this a story of too much foreign intervention or not enough? I know some posit blame on Obama and Western powers for failing to step in after the turmoil of the Arab Spring.
JL: In my view it’s important to learn one essential lesson, whether you find yourself on the interventionist or isolationist side of the debate: Intervention has consequences, but so does non-intervention. Anything else would be intellectually dishonest.
Inaction cannot be the answer to the failures of intervention in the face of the most pressing humanitarian and security challenges of our time. The truth is that full-scale interventions as we have experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq are difficult. And so are partial interventions as seen in Libya. Syria, on the other hand, is the ultimate symbol for inaction — the conflict has claimed more lives than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya combined.
Of course military intervention is always a last resort; the last resort. Having to go to war is a declaration of failure for it means that we’ve failed to tackle a crisis before it reached the point of no return. But, unfortunately, such situations arise. Acts of mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and genocide can never be purely internal matters excused by the principle of state sovereignty. Most countries have signed the UN’s Responsibility to Protect — the principle that if a government is no longer willing or able to protect its own population from harm, it becomes the responsibility of the international community to safeguard their wellbeing.
But there’s little appetite in the West to get caught up in yet another long-term entanglement in a far-flung place from which retrieving itself would prove difficult. President Obama is spearheading a generation of political leaders who, scarred by the experience of their predecessors, have subscribed to a pre-9/11 worldview, characterized by a new doctrine of isolationism.
Their solution was to let regional players take more responsibility and agency for their own action. In theory a great idea, but in practice it turned out to be a phenomenal disaster. The power vacuum left by withdrawing Western powers has been filled by forces not aligned to our interests, with little or no regard for civilian casualties.
MM: You wrote an article noting how the world did nothing during the massacres in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Sarajevo. Is there an official estimate on the death-toll in Syria? What’s hamstringing more countries from providing help?
JL: We always say “never again,” but we don’t really mean it. It has become an empty mantra similar to the well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless platitudes outpoured on social media after every terrorist attack. Platitudes won’t stop terrorism; and rallying cries won’t stop mass murder. Hashtagging makes us feel good, while we shy away from advocating policies that could potentially have real impact on the ground in places such as Syria and Iraq.
Syria’s population was about 21 million when the revolution began in 2011. Since then, more than 1 in 10 Syrians have either been killed or wounded — the vast majority by the Assad regime — according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR). Millions more have been forced from their homes: 6.5 million are displaced within Syria; more than 4 million have fled the country.
The UN’s human-rights office stopped recording fatalities in 2014 because it couldn’t get hold of reliable data. However, the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria put the death toll at 400,000 in a statement released in April 2016.
The international response to the crisis has been absolutely shameful. We should have done more sooner. In my view, our current political leadership does a very poor job explaining to voters why it’s sometimes necessary to get involved and there’s a cost you pay if you don’t intervene. “Why do we have to police the world?” they ask. Well, if you can’t see the moral justification and humanitarian responsibility, think about it in realist terms. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that a crisis the scale of Syria can be contained within its borders. We live in an extremely interdependent world. The global Islamist insurgency has gained momentum as a result of the war in Syria and brought mayhem onto our streets.
I’ve noticed a trend — probably spurned by an anti-Western intervention sentiment — of support for Assad and Putin because they’re secular. What is your opinion on that?
Let’s be absolutely clear here: Assad and Putin care only about one thing: themselves. And perhaps about each other because it suits their interest. But look no further than their allegiance with the theocratic fascists in Tehran and their terror-proxy Hezbollah to see how fundamentally flawed the “secular” narrative is.
The Shiite militia supported by Assad and Russia are just as much a threat to the secular fabric of society as the Sunni extremists in Syria. In fact, they’re notorious for their brutality and crimes committed against Muslims of other denominations.
Moreover, to present Assad as the saviour of minorities and a bulwark against sectarianism is at best ignorant and at worst deliberately disingenuous. His regime has a long history of oppressing minorities. Take the Kurds for example. The Ba’athist regime denied them the right to speak their language and practise their traditions.
There’s a group of people — usually to be found on the far-Left and isolationist-Right of the political spectrum — that applies different standards to the US, Israel and other allied countries, nurtured by their misguided obsession with colonialism and neo-imperialism.
In the UK, we have a pressure group called “Stop the War UK”, an organisation to which the current leader of the opposition is closely linked to. Whenever the US lifts as much as a finger, they organise a protest. But when Assad and Russia drop barrel bombs on schools and hospitals and starve to death Palestinians in Yarmou refugee camp, they remain silent. These people are not anti-war. They’re simply anti-West.