They are the most shocking images I have ever seen, as far removed from my life in a quiet college town suburb as is feasible. Children withering on the ground in pain, grown men wailing over the dead bodies of their children, women screaming and piles and piles of bodies – too many to count. Seas of white shrouds as the survivors bury their dead – almost all it would seem innocent people. I cannot imagine that the child shaking on the ground – aged perhaps five or six, or the little girl on a hospital bed, fighting for life as she turns blue represented any serious threat to Assad’s criminal regime.
Each time a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes, the world declares “never again” – never again will such actions be tolerated, never again will the world sit back and watch war crimes take place. As ever, nothing will ever happen. This is the hard truth of Syria – no one is going to save the civilians. No one will stop Assad and his backers, or his paid mercenaries from butchering civilians, from bombing innocents with chemical weapons. The moral indignation of the wider world has become meaningless- red lines come and go, now so unclear as to be invisible for all practical purposes.
Now this is not to say I support the Free Syrian Army. I recognize that both sides have unsavoury characters – but it is not the opposition that commands a complete, modern military machine that is conducting war crimes every week. It is not they who drop bombs on civilians from MiG fighters, or they who fire scud missiles into neighbourhoods. Sometime ago I wrote of the need for intervention – to bring a war that was then still quite young to a swift end – to avoid this very outcome. The passing of time has resulted in untold horrors, scores of thousands of extra deaths and now once again the use of chemical weapons. However it seems moral outrage is meaningless – the political powers that be in the Middle East and the West and within those states such as China and Russia that back Assad care not for any personal loss or about the conduct of war. All that matters is the bottom line – the strategic outcome of a proxy war being fought within Syria between the various states involved. That the tab for this conflict and strategic tussle is being paid by little girls and boys, old women and the like is immaterial.
It is doubtable that Syria as a state can be saved now. Should the guns fall silent, who amongst the masses will forgive and forget the horrors perpetrated against them by the faceless ‘other’? Who will accept the status quo when so much blood has been spilled to change just that? How can the people accept Assad in power when much of the state has been physically destroyed and an endless stream of Syrians seek refuges abroad all as a result of his unwillingness to loosen his grip on power?
I cannot imagine a post conflict Syria will be stable. This civil war is to a large degree shaped along sectarian lines. Assad is a Shia, Iran and Hezbollah – his key backers are Shia. The opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni – as are those who provide them with materials, recognition and support – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This war has exacerbated the delicate fault lines within Syrian society – and the Muslim world more broadly. The likes of Russia have geopolitical reasons to prop up Assad and the West too has reasons to oppose him – all of it amounting to a complex web of factors that keeps anything from bringing this conflict to a swift end. Perhaps a stable country under a tyrant is better than the current situation – undoubtedly to any sane person it would be, but who will accept this tyrant again? Is a new strongman the solution? Or perhaps it is better for all if the Alawite community simply secede from the Syrian republic into a new state? Assad and his father before him have perpetuated Alawite dominance over the masses of Sunni Syrians and will never willingly allow natural demographic pressures to shape Syrian politics and such a situation would see his Alawite community forever outnumbered.
Perhaps then a swift partition is better than endless war. The Alawites would have their own state – a land where they can feel empowered, whilst the rest of Syria can get on without them. The issues of disempowerment and discrimination they as the minority fear should their grip of power weaken would become mute. Syria – then free from its sectarian division could proceed to rebuild as a democratic state representing the will of the majority of its peoples.
I am not calling for partition, just opining that it may be better then constant war. Whatever they decide, the sad truth is that the people of Syria will have to reach their own solution. No one is going to step in and save them from the horrors of war; no one takes more than a customary note of war crimes. For their own sake, the people of Syria need to fix or they will continue to bury their future one shrouded child at a time.
Mohsin Zeb, PhD candidate University College London.