Syria – a humanitarian catastrophe and a political disaster
Syria’s civil war, and especially its humanitarian catastrophe, no longer grabs world headlines, except for the extreme cruelties of stoning and beheading by the self-declared Islamic State caliphate, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
Some nine million Syrians have been displaced and 2.9 million have fled the country because of war, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This means that half of Syria’s 18 million population has been displaced.
Lebanon, with a population of less than five million, has accepted 1.1 million refugees. The Lebanese should be admired for their humanitarian effort, although it could lead to further destabilising their country.
Some 170,000 Syrians have been killed.
Rarely in history has half the population of a country been displaced by war. We are witnessing a huge humanitarian tragedy in Syria.
Syria was created artificially in an agreement between Britain and France when dividing the former Ottoman Empire in mutual spheres of interests. It became a French Protectorate and gained independence in 1946. Hafez al-Assad, father of the current President Bashar al-Assad, seized power in 1971 and ruled in an authoritarian way until his death in 2000. His son has continued the regime’s rule.
Syria’s population is diversified, with 74 per cent Arab Sunni, 13 per cent other muslims such as Alawite and Shia, 10 per cent Christian and three per cent Druze. The Kurds, in the north of Syria, are the largest ethnic minority and make up 10-15 per cent of the population.
The Assad family is Alawite, a religious minority group close to Shia. The Assad family respected all groups but, in order to maintain power, political freedom was limited and there was no respect for human rights irrespective of ethnicity or religion. The regime was closer to Iran than most other Arab countries and traditionally friendly with Russia. It provided Russia with a Mediterranean naval base.
The regime reacted brutally to demonstrations in Syria in the wake of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Saudi Arabia used the tensions to support an Arab Sunni insurgence against the regime which started a proxy war in Syria against Iran.
It supported insurgents which quickly resulted in the origin of radical movements such as ISIS. Radicals dominated the insurgence. The US supported the insurgents verbally, with limited funds and indirectly with some weapons.
Economic and travel sanctions were introduced against the Assad regime in Europe and the US. Turkey adopted a strong anti-Assad position, while Russia and Iran support him.
The Saudi-Iranian proxy war on Syrian territory reached a global dimension.
The goal of the US and Europe was, from the outset, that ‘Assad must go’. But real support was lacklustre beyond backing a weak ‘government in exile’ which had no support in Syria. There was no post-Assad strategy and no vision of who, within the Sunni group, would dominate or what would happen to the Alawites, Christians and Kurds if the insurgents won.
The Islamic State (IS) caliphate declared by the former Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group is the strongest movement today besides the government regime in war-torn Syria. The West and Saudi Arabia are just waking up to this threatening scenario. They do not know what to do.
The caliphate already controls parts of Syria and Iraq and is run on Sharia principles. The borders between Iraq and Syria are irrelevant to them. The reality ignores the artificial states of Iraq and Syria and is, by its aggressive fundamentalist character, a threat to the entire region. Unless the caliphate is defeated, the remaining Christians, Alawites and Kurds will either have to flee their country or secure their own territory, as the Kurds did in Iraq. Living within the caliphate for them is impossible.
The US may accept President al-Assad as the lesser of the two evils. In doing so it would lose face in the region once more and offend some of its friends. It would prove it was an unreliable ally as GIS expert Dr Samir Nassif wrote on November 26, 2013. Syria's President al-Assad is ‘an option among several evils’, a GIS statement said on June 30, 2014.
Public attention may be diverted by other global crises, such as those involving Russia, to provide a smokescreen for America’s change in policy.
International meddling in Syria’s affairs, combined with lacklustre and indecisive action by the US, has led to this disaster. The failure of US politics has been exacerbated by the absence of any clear European policy.
The human tragedy grows. But what will happen with the caliphate? Can it be defeated and, if it is, will it return after a few years?
A regional reorganisation of the Middle East is happening. Syria cannot be isolated. The disastrous decisions in dissolving the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, especially by Britain and France, described by the American historian and author David Fromkin as ‘A peace to end all peace’, are taking revenge.
Foreign interventions in local affairs, the application of ideologies, political theories and dogmas, and hidden agendas camouflaged as benevolence, do not allow the Middle East to sort out its own problems. International intervention to protect minorities makes sense, but supporting regime change for the sake of it and artificially applying political theories and power games, is counter-productive.