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| MIDDLE EAST |

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SYRIA'S THIRTY-YEARS WAR

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By David Levy

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The Montréal Review, January 2013

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Syrian Children - first impression (2012, Oil on canvas) by Abdalla Omari

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THE situation in Syria seems to have worsened over the past several months. Bashar al-Assad's resolve has if anything hardened. The death toll rises, the numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict grows. To get some insight into the Syrian future I spoke with Faisal Alazem of the Canadian Syrian Council.

DL: A few months ago, a Syrian journalist based in London told me that there didn't appear to be any end in sight, that the conflict could go on indefinitely. I have yet to hear a contradictory prognosis.

FA: It's going to take some time. In Syria today, the defections from the army now constitute a significant element of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The circle is closing.

DL: The impression one has is that the Assad's army is powerful but incompetent.

FA: There is the Fourth Division and the Republican Guard, professional and very well trained. The Republican Guard are the body guards of the regime, and of Damascus. The rest of the army, approximately 300,000 soldiers, is as you say quite incompetent. The social base is absent. They enter villages and are looked upon as traitors and killers, they may be spat upon. Morale is extremely low. The soldiers have grown reluctant to enter these villages and the regime, for that reason, realizes it needs to conduct the fight with air power and ballistic missiles. This is one of the first times in human history where you see a government bombarding its own people, missiles being fired from Damascus into the northern territories. The regime is relying less and less on soldiers and increasingly on air power. A third element is the non official government militia known as the Shabiha - from the Arabic term translated as ghosts - the regime's thugs who perform acts of torture, killing and rape intended to inflame sectarian hatred.

"This is one of the first times in human history where you see a government bombarding its own people, missiles being fired from Damascus into the northern territories..."

DL: The regime seems to possess a secular character, it is a regime very different, say, from the one in Iran.

FA: The regime is very particular. It relies on loyalties and part of these loyalties has a sectarian aspect. They circulate the false claim that minorities in Syria need to rely on the regime for protection. Of course this is nonsense.

DL: The conflict is creating an enormous number of refugees.

FA: I went to Ottawa and asked the government to facilitate family re-unification for victims of the conflict. There are many citizens here of Syrian origin whose relatives in Syria have bombs falling on their heads. We've done it for Haitians after the earthquake, we've done it for the Lebanese, for the Iraqis. Syrians are not offered that deal. The numbers killed and displaced are shocking.

DL: What was the explanation?

FA: They said that Canada was the sixth biggest humanitarian contributor to the Syrian calamity.I have hundreds of pictures and hundreds of videos showing children sleeping in a refugee camp in Jordan.Children are dying in these conditions. There have been cases of children perishing from the cold in UN agency tents in Za'atari, Jordan.

DL: What began as a struggle for human rights seems to have evolved into a Shia-Sunni proxy battle, Iran backing Assad, the FSA getting help from Qatar and Saudi.

FA: The regime's response to what were essentially quite modest human rights demands has drawn the country into that kind of war.

DL: Is there any hope of a political solution?

FA: That hope has faded. There were more than sixty bread lines bombarded by the regime. A couple of weeks ago there were pictures all over the internet of bread soaked in blood. Syrians say that when they eat bread that image rises up and makes it difficult to swallow. The FSA is composed of ad hoc militias and is so far without a central command. As time goes by and conditions worsen, the door opens for extremist elements. A brutalized population will accept help from whoever offers it.

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In April of last year Fouad Ajami in a Wall Street Journal piece complained about what he called "America's Syrian abdication." There were, he said, reports of American officials discouraging attempts to assist the FSA. He noted the suspicion within the region that the US didn't want to see the al-Assad regime go down, the charitable version being that President Obama was for whatever reason reluctant to take on the Iranians, strong Assad supporters.

Might a freelance Assad foe - remember Curveball - succeed in dragging America into this war on the basis of a fabricated chemical weapons tale?

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My conversation with the American military strategist and historian Edward Luttwak touched on the roles of other players - Turkey, Israel, Russia.

DL: The conflict in Syria shows no sign of ending any time soon.

EL: It can certainly go on for a long time. The evidence is plain before our eyes. It leads to the conclusion that it is very important we continue to monitor the situation while studiously avoiding any involvement. On the other hand, the crisis has demonstrated the complete impotence of the Turks. They were boasting about how they were the rising middle power.. That supposed "middle power" has proven itself incapable --it cannot even organize decent refugee camps. I don't know anyone willing to do anything about Syria in the sense of knocking off Assad, which we could do in one day of air strikes and then remain there for years to straighten out the Syrians, kill off the jihadis and all those other people, shut up the imams and do those other things. If we are unwilling to take this action, then we have to watch the spectacle of poor Syrians starving and being bombed on CNN.  If you don't like the spectacle, change the channel, watch something else. I could recommend one or two options. Or you could get yourself a much worse version of Libya. Look, we are unable to get to the site of the ransacked American consulate in Benghazi. The Italian consulate in Benghazi is in lockdown after the consul was shot at.

"I don't know anyone willing to do anything about Syria in the sense of knocking off Assad, which we could do in one day of air strikes and then remain there for years to straighten out the Syrians, kill off the jihadis and all those other people, shut up the imams and do those other things..."

DL: The Syrians and the Turks were good pals. What happened?

EL: The Syrian embrace was an expression of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's hatred of Israel. He is the guy who said Muslims do not commit genocide. That mask has fallen. The Syrians are now revealing who they are. So Erdogan is pissed off.  What has been revealed as well is the impotence of the Turks. In June the Syrians shot down a Turkish aircraft, the Turks responded with criticism. In December Syrian tanks shelled a Turkish border town. The Turks after all the posturing responded with some talk...

DL: How is the situation being viewed in Israel?

EL: The Israelis will only deal with a chemical weapons issue. If they believe Assad plans to hand these weapons over to Hezbollah the Israelis will send in ground forces to seize them. It can't be done from the air. Nerve gas is highly inflammable.

DL: How to explain the Russian position?

EL:  The Russians are reaping a huge benefit by their support for Assad. It is consolidating their position all over Central Asia. They are now able to say to the rulers of Kazakhstan and all the other nations in that region: You're smart to remain obedient to us. Ignore the siren call of the Americans because the moment you shoot down a few Muslim agitators, the Americans will drop you like a rock. Look at what they did to Mubarak. Whereas we are faithful to our friends. By taking this position the Russians are not scoring in Syria, they're scoring globally. It doesn't matter to them what the outcome might be in Syria, it is the global perspective they care most about. They are demonstrating that they are friends that can be relied on. Assad and his fellow Alawites would probably be content with the establishment of a smaller Alawite republic in a corner of Syria with access to the sea....

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A rumour, so far unconfirmed, apparently having originated in the American consulate in Istanbul, claims that in December the Assad military used Agent 15, described as an an "odourless incapacitating agent" against FSA militias in Homs. Among the rebel groups battling Assad is the Al-Nusra Front. Designated a terrorist organization by the United States, it is considered the top FSA fighting force. The  group's goals, said a commander, were deposing Assad and  establishing a state governed by strict sharia law.

Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid Mualiem, has proposed talks with rebel forces about a possible unity government with conditions: the agenda needs to be free of any discussion about the future of the president Bashar al-Assad and all foreign intervention is to be rejected. The proposal is not regarded as realistic or offering the promise of an end to hostilities. Two key rebel organizations have now emerged: The National Syrian Coalition, backed by Western  powers, and a coalition composed of 13 radical Islamist factions, some of which have links to al Qaeda, that has declared the city of Aleppo a new independent Islamist state. It seems unlikely that either of these coalitions will respond positively to Assad's offer. 

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David Levy is a contributing editor at The Montreal Review and author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)

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