Tuesday,19 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)
Tuesday,19 March, 2019
Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Ending the war in Syria

Eight long years have passed since the war in Syria broke out, resulting in one of the worst ever human catastrophes. More than 400,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, were killed since March 2011, according to UN figures. In 2016, from an estimated pre-war population of 22 million, the UN identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, of which more than six million are internally displaced within Syria, and around five million are refugees outside of Syria.

Moreover, the modern Syrian state, whose borders were determined by former French colonialists, has simply disintegrated. Hardly any country in the world has had so many different armies deployed on its territory, both willingly and against its will. Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States, France and Britain all have an official military presence in Syria. Israel, that has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967, exploited the civil war to tighten its grip over the occupied Syrian territory, and even going as far as asking the world to recognise its illegal occupation of the Golan. Meanwhile, Israel gave itself a free rein to regularly bomb targets within Syria, violating international agreements and laws. 

Furthermore, tens of thousands of mercenaries and extremists were attracted to fight in Syria, mostly looking for lucrative financial gains provided by warlords or by many countries whose governments decided to turn Syrian territory into a war front by proxy. Several major Syrian opposition groups, who originally started a peaceful civilian protest to demand democracy, free elections and social justice, quickly lost their independence and fell hostage to foreign governments who provide them not just with financial support to serve their agendas, but with deadly weapons used to kill their fellow Syrians.

The Syrian refugee crisis did not only weaken Syria as a nation much in need of its creative people. As millions headed to Europe, this opened the door for the rise of right-wing, populist parties who claimed that the Syrian refugees threatened their “white” culture and “way of life”. Several European countries have now opted to build walls to prevent refugees from getting in, adopting clearly racist rhetoric to justify their policies. Neighbouring countries, namely Jordan and Lebanon, suffered severe economic difficulties amid efforts to cope with the Syrian refugee crisis, while thousands of Syrian refugees were left stranded in open seas, hoping that one country or another would admit them.

The Syrian regime, headed by President Bashar Al-Assad, indeed committed major mistakes that contributed to this massive human suffering. However, Damascus cannot bare the blame alone, especially when key neighbouring countries, particularly Turkey, saw the civil war as a golden opportunity to expand their territory. President  Recep Tayyip Erdogan even considered Syria as the linchpin of his dream of restoring the old Ottoman Empire.

The world waited too long, indifferently watching the continued suffering of the Syrian people, mainly because they didn’t see in Syria anything except “sand and death”, as US President Donald Trump recently stated in typically blunt language. This indifference must come to an end, and perhaps for the first time in years, there might be a chance to restore the Syrian state and save the lives of innocent Syrians.

The argument over the fate of the Syrian regime, and whether it should go or stay, consumed tens of thousands of Syrian lives. Egypt’s stance was far more principled, supporting mainly the Syrian people themselves. Priority right now must be to stop the war, restore the integrity of the Syrian state, and finally allow the Syrian people to determine their own future following democratic and credible elections. Cairo was not biased except to the interests of the brotherly Syrian people, even hosting Syrian opposition groups who understood that the priority should be finding the means to preserve the existence of the Syrian state.

In recent weeks, several Arab countries came closer to Egypt’s stance, agreeing to restore ties with the Syrian regime as a first step towards ending the war in Syria. Binding the Syrian crisis to the continuation or not of the current regime is certainly the wrong approach, and only led to increasing the humanitarian disaster in Syria. Arab countries, whether through the Arab League or bilateral and multilateral relations between key Arab states, should take the lead in helping to end the war in Syria and assist the Syrian people in restoring their country. Popular revolts to demand democracy and accountability cannot threaten the existence of the state that should serve to unite the people. Ending the war in Syria is long overdue, and must now be the priority.

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