The Desert of Lop. Chasing illusions in Syria*

Lop-Nur-Taklimakan-Desert-3

‘The truth is this.

‘When a man is riding by night through this desert, then he hears spirits talking and will suppose them to be his companions…

‘Sometimes in the night they are conscious of a noise like the clatter of a great cavalcade of riders, away from the road; and believing that these are of their own company, they go where they hear the noise, and when day breaks, find they are victims of an illusion and in an awkward plight.

‘And there are some who, in crossing this desert have seen a host of men coming towards them, and suspecting that they were robbers, have taken flight, so having left the beaten track and not knowing how to return to it, they have gone helplessly astray.

‘Even by daylight, men hear these spirit voices…’

Marco Polo, The Desert of Lop

(*This is the second part of a two-part piece I wrote regarding the conflicts in Libya and Syria in the week up to and including Valentine’s Day 2016)

In Syria, even as Assad, backed by indiscriminate airstrikes from Russia, and the Hizbollah army directed by Iran; and rebel reinforcements intending to back up the Free Syrian Army, advance on Aleppo, a ceasefire was called.

Sadly, just as the ‘Government of National Accord’ plan for Libya, this proposal was not tabled, or agreed, by those actually on the ground – Assad, the FSA, Al Nusra and IS* – but instead by the US government in Munich.

*it is extremely unlikely, of course, that IS or Al Nusra would be interested in a ceasefire in Syria, but it should be noted that neither Assad nor the FSA have been actively pursuing one either.

Announced late on Thursday night, the term ‘ceasefire’ is in fact a wild misnomer for the ‘deal’ supposedly struck by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Because under the terms of the proposals, the US and other NATO states will not stop their bombing campaign on IS and Al Nusra positions, Assad has not made any indication he is willing to order his forces and allies to pause their attacks, IS and Al Nusra have been specifically excluded from the deal, the FSA is extraordinarily unlikely to lay down its weapons if Assad and Russia do not do the same, and Russia is not obliged to stop bombing Aleppo.

It’s a ceasefire in which literally not one single participant in the Syrian Civil War actually has to cease firing, and as a result, not only does no military group benefit, but the civilian population remains under attack from four sides, including its own government and its Russian allies, the group which opposes the government, two international terrorist organisations, and an international military union which – in attempting to smash IS and Al Nusra from Syria – is destroying homes, hospitals, businesses and schools, and killing ordinary men, women and children.

Syria urgently needs positive steps to promote peace and free people from the constant threat of death. It would be nice to regard Kerry’s ceasefire as one such step. Sadly, as things stand, it does not appear to be anything of the sort.

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As if to confirm the emptiness of the words included in Kerry’s proposal, fewer than four days passed between its announcement and Russian aircraft bombing two hospitals in Northern Syria.

On Monday morning, the state’s jets smashed an MSF hospital in Maaret al-Numan, a town in Idlib Province, 170 miles north of Damascus.

The makeshift health centre – the only hospital in operation in the region – was hit four times in two separate raids. Seven people were reported killed and dozens were wounded in the strike, with eight MSF employees unaccounted for.

The same morning, Russian missiles struck a Unicef-supported children’s and maternity hospital in Azaz, a town north of Aleppo. In this strike, 10 people were killed, and more than 30 wounded.

Of course, Russia is not alone in having bombed hospitals. In Libya in the immediate aftermath of the state’s first Civil War, I visited hospitals NATO had struck. And as recently as 29 September, US aircraft bombed an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

But in Russia’s case, these strikes are not at all unusual. Since it began bombing Syria – striking civilian as well as strongholds of rebel militia groups (the majority not IS-held) – in September last year, it has now struck five hospitals.

Human Rights Watch reported four war-crimes committed by the Russian air force in November and December alone.

Every strike on a hospital is a war crime. Russian aircraft has now bombed five hospitals in five months. That does not appear to be an accident.

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Even before Russia added to its ever-lengthening list of war-crimes in Syria, Kerry’s ‘ceasefire’ had been shown to be worthless.

Within 36 hours of its announcement, on Saturday 13 February, Saudi Arabia had announced plans to send ground troops into Syria, and Turkey had launched its first official air-strikes in the state.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling Saud family – some members of which are believed to be major financial backers of IS internationally – claims its intention is to enter Syria to attack IS.

On the same day, Turkey undertook the second open military strikes it has made in Syria since the state’s civil war began in March 2011.

On Saturday 13 and Sunday 14 February, Turkish aircraft shelled Azaz, the same place Russia targeted on Monday 15.

Turkey’s bombing has been widely – and accurately – reported as a strike on a Kurdish-held area; indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s strike, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made a public statement that Kurdish forces must withdraw from the parts of Aleppo they have recently entered.

As noted in previous posts on this site, the Turkish government’s relationship with and attitude to its own Kurdish population and Kurds in Iraq and Syria is significantly more complicated than either Turkey or the Kurds wish to admit in public.

It is worth noting, for example, that the most recent round of violence between Turkey and Kurdish people began with an attack by Kurdish gunmen on 22 July 2015 which killed several police officers in the immediate aftermath of the IS bombing of Suruc two days before. The Kurdish PKK, which includes a paramilitary wing, claimed responsibility for the killings, which it said were ‘revenge’ for the Suruc bombing – an extremely difficult claim to justify, as the Suruc attack was an IS attack against Turkish and Kurdish citizens on Turkish soil.

It is also reasonable to remember that Turkey’s belief that Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish communities harbour people who had previously carried out attacks on Turkish soil are almost certainly correct: in fact, this is almost necessarily the case, as the removal of those people from Turkey by the PKK was a ‘goodwill’ gesture in April 2013 which enabled negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdish group to begin later that year.

However, it is also true that Turkey’s response to the PKK’s reopening of hostilities has been to wildly overreact – not only has it now shelled Kurdish regions of both Iraq and Syria, its government has also carried out systematic raids against and arrests of Kurdish and left-wing political activists, and imposed ‘curfews’ in cities in Turkey’s South East, (where the majority of its Kurdish population lives) which have been compared to military occupation.

In previous analyses of the situation, I have noted that IS could hardly have wished for a better outcome from the Suruc bombing: in exchange for the life of one activist (Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagöz, who by bitter irony was in fact an ethnic Kurd from Turkey), it had killed 33, injured more than 100, and set Turkey – the largest and most powerful of Syria’s neighbours – against Kurdish armed groups which had been the most effective brake on IS advances in Syria itself*.

*It is a widely-held and continually-repeated view that Kurdish forces are the ‘most effective’ opponent of IS in Syria. This has demonstrably proved true, but the reasons for it may not be immediately clear: in effect, it comes down to the fact that all of the combatants in the Syrian Civil War are fighting more than one opponent, with the sole exception of the Kurds.

That is, Assad’s forces, backed by Russian airstrikes and the Hizbollah armed force commanded by Iran (though with a large number of Lebanese soldiers), is opposed by the Free Syrian Army, IS, Al Nusra and a number of smaller groups. The FSA, which has received money and weapons, but no aerial support, from several NATO states, are opposed by Assad and his allies, IS, and occasionally Al Nusra. Al Nusra is opposed by Assad, IS and occasionally – though more often not – by the FSA, while IS opposes and is opposed by literally every member of every group which is not IS.

The Kurds are – in that, at least – IS’ direct opposites. By remaining neutral in the FSA and Assad’s war, they are opposed by neither. Al Nusra has to date proven more pragmatic than IS, and has as a result steered clear of courting enmity where it doesn’t need to, once again enabling the Kurds to sidestep potential conflict against it. Only IS has directly engaged the Kurds in conflict, meaning that the Kurds have been able to focus all of their strength on resisting IS and responding to its aggression.

It should be noted in this context that to date, the only occasion on which Kurdish troops have engaged IS in any context other than the defence or re-taking of Kurdish land or urban areas has come when they removed IS from Yazidi regions of Northern Syria and Iraq – roughly the same regions in which Kurdish people themselves live.

But the Turkish attack is perhaps not as simple as a strike at Kurdish-held land. Because the strikes also struck Assad forces who have recently snatched land around Aleppo.

This is a potentially important development because Aleppo is just 28 miles from Syria’s border with Turkey – Azaz is considerably closer – and just 74 miles from Gaziantep, a Turkish city of 1.8m people.

Turkey’s opposition to Assad is public and widely known, but the proximity of Aleppo – a city which Assad has been remorselessly pounding since large parts of it were taken by the FSA in 2012 – to Gaziantep, combined with Assad’s repeated warnings that he regards any and all incursion into Syria as an act of war, have helped prevent Turkey attacking Assad’s forces or positions they hold.

But in the ongoing confusion of the renewed war for Aleppo – largely inspired by Russian bombing – Turkey’s options are extended, at least as long as it can claim to be acting from a position of anti-Kurdish, rather than anti-Syrian feeling. Nobody would seriously suggest that Turkey is launching attacks on Kurdish positions in Syria in order to strike Assad’s forces, but being able to strike both simultaneously might be considered a virtue, rather than unfortunate, by the Turkish government.

In any event, the first new developments in Syria since John Kerry’s ‘ceasefire’ was announced were a promise by Saudi Arabia to send ground troops to the state, and for Turkey to launch its first all-out attacks on positions in Syria.

This may be the first ceasefire in history to be an actual escalation of war.

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Also announced last week was a proposal to send three NATO warships to the Aegean to focus on the number of people attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece.

This site has kept a running total of the number of people who, fleeing war, terror, oppression, starvation and torture, have entered the EU from Syria and other states over the last 14 or-so months.

This year alone (to 14 February), 82,636 people have arrived on European shores. Four hundred and three people have drowned in the attempt.

In both cases, the true numbers are likely to be bigger.

It is clear that the EU – and the wider international community – is panicking unnecessarily about the situation as it stands. The EU is the wealthiest political bloc on Earth, and the one million or so people who have arrived here in the last 14 months is a tiny fraction of its current population.

But it is panicking.

Greece – a state which is technically at war with Turkey over the latter’s claims to parts of Cyprus – this week declared Turkey a ‘safe third state’; a designation which means EU member states are allowed to return refugees there if they so choose.

This would be less troubling were it not for the fact that Amnesty International and others have shown that Syrian entrants to Turkey are mistreated by police, if it were not illegal for Syrians to work in Turkey, and if the EU was not paying Turkey to prevent Syrians from entering the EU without clear restrictions on how it is to do so.

And the NATO warship plan – announced on 11 February – was another knee-jerk and ill-planned response.

When it was announced, the three ships, led by a German vessel, were supposed to be patrolling the Aegean to target people smugglers. But it was quickly made clear that they would not be operating in Turkish or Greek waters – the exact places the crossings are now being made.

The vessels will also not be allowed to stop boats travelling to Greece, and in fact one of the few things it has so far been announced they will be allowed to do is return anyone they manage to rescue from drowning to Turkey, the state from which they will have just fled.

General Philip Breedlove of the US Air Force, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe looked understandably harassed when he admitted to journalists that the reason the details were so sketchy is that in fact NATO itself does not know what it is doing, or why it is doing it:

‘This mission has literally come together in the last 20 hours,’ he explained. ‘And I have been tasked now to go back and define the mission.’

The situation was equally well summed up by Doctors Without Borders, whose statement was if anything perhaps too charitable in its assumption of mission direction.

It asked: ‘How many deaths will it take before Europe, Turkey and others focus their energy on providing humanitarian solutions rather than deterrence measures that clearly miss the point?’

It is a point which has been made on this site many times. Even if we were to focus only on the international refugee crisis, rather than its underlying cause, solutions do exist.

The EU – perhaps but not necessarily in collaboration with Turkey and indeed any other states – can certainly cope with the small amount it is being asked to do.

It is time the bloc lived up to its humanitarian ideals and for the members, including the UK, who have stood in its way to date to remember that at the heart of this crisis – and all crises – are people.

The EU is panicking and pretending desperate men, women and children pose some kind of existential threat to it and its principles. The opposite is true. The EU was designed to respond to exactly this kind of emergency. It has the space, the cash, and the infrastructure to do so.

It is time it started to save lives.

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Of course at the heart of the Syrian crisis is the state’s ongoing civil war.

It would be foolish to pretend that even the EU saving lives is an ideal solution to the current international situation (though it would be far preferable to what it has so far done and is doing), because the war is wrecking lives it does not end, uprooting families and scattering them far from home, and often far from those they know and love.

As often noted on these pages, one major issue at the heart of the conflict – including from those who are not directly involved in it – is that everyone appears to be working to enable someone to ‘win’, rather than to end the war, and enable people to start living their lives once more.

I have spoken at length about the reasons why an outright win for any side will not be what is best for Syria (you can read in detail here, but in brief: Assad cannot realistically hope to govern Syria having remorselessly targeted civilians in a failed attempt to wipe out opposition; the FSA is a) now an armed force, with the experience of killing, and b) causes fear – albeit not necessarily completely just fear – in Alawites who believe the removal of Assad might lead Syria back to the days when the state’s Sunni majority population rained massacres upon them; Al Nusra is an Al-Qaeda-affiliate, able to command some support in a conflict situation – particularly when fighting alongside the FSA – but not trusted by Syrians to actually govern the state, while literally nobody supports IS except IS itself), but an alternative solution could easily deliver a Syria which is not only better than the mayhem, murder and chaos of the state today, but also better than what came before it.

In order for that to happen, the following steps must be taken:

  • Bashar Al Assad must be arrested and tried for war crimes at the ICC.

This does not mean ‘Assad must be found guilty of war crimes’. But the President of the Syrian Republic is currently responsible for more than 250,000 civilian deaths in Syria, and he must be held to account for that.

In order to do so, he must face a fair trial and if found innocent he should be freed and allowed to go and live wherever he likes.

As noted above, however, it’s certainly clear Syria can no longer be peacefully governed by him, so if found innocent he cannot expect to return to govern Syria: he clearly does not command the majority of public approval – or even a wide-held acceptance that he is a good stop-gap until a better government can be appointed.

A major challenge to this first step are that Russia will certainly object – as Assad is Russia’s major ally in the Middle East, and it fears his removal will lose it any strategic presence in the region.

However, this issue can be overcome. Because Russia does not support Assad because it likes him, it does so because he is useful to it, and because it fears a new government might turn Syria into a ‘client-state’ of the US. This means not only that the new state must not become that state, but that the international community can help convince Russia that it will not.

Syria’s Alawites will also need to be convinced about the new Syria.

In their case, Assad – an Alawite himself, and president of a secular state – is a protector. Alawites make up just 14 per cent of the Syrian population, and a far larger proportion of Assad’s support.

Like Russia, however, many of his supporters are motivated not by any great love of Assad’s outlook or personality, but by what he represents – a feeling of security from harm, which many fear would be threatened by a new regime.

With that in mind:

  • A new Syrian government must be formed, by the international community and with Syrians at the forefront of the process.

In recognition of the Alawites’ fears – and because a victorious army can seldom be relied upon to create a stable or balanced administration – this government must not a triumphal FSA-led march to power.

Instead, the government must represent all Syrians equally – Sunni, Alawite, Christian, other Shiites and none of the above – and must protect all unfailingly and unstintingly.

  • None of this will have dislodged IS, however, which is interested only in its own insane target of running a state which it already knows almost nobody except its own members – and even then, when one factors in those members recruited by threats to family members, or by fear, not even all its own members – actually wants.

But it is only when a government is in place in which the Syrian people is actively engaged and by which its interests are protected, that we should hope to tackle IS.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but the Syrian Civil War did not start because of IS. It had been going around two years before the maniacal terror-group dragged itself into it – and they are not central to its outcome.

Despite IS’ international notoriety and mania, the war is between Assad and those who oppose him politically. IS is frightening, and a significant complicating factor, but IS’ removal will not bring the Syrian Civil War to an end. Bringing the Syrian Civil War to an end, however, might well bring IS in Syria to an end.

Because IS is strongest only where there is lack of governance and where conflict is raging or has only recently begun. That’s why it is strong in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, but not in neighbouring states such as Tunisia, Oman, Iran, and Turkey.

When a Syrian government, police force and army are in place, IS loses not only its major recruitment drives (both ‘being strong in combat’; and ‘standing against Western aggression towards Muslims’) but also, in a state with recovered infrastructure, also its material supply routes.

Under such circumstances, this government – perhaps with international assistance – would be able to succeed where attacks on IS within the context of an all-out war are almost certainly doomed to fail: the new state, with any assistance necessary, will be able to expel IS.

Of course, none of this is easy. It requires both thought outside of the standard military model which has been at the centre of the international community’s failures to date, and it particularly requires Russia and the US to place the lives of innocent civilians before their own (short-term, as a peaceful Syria opens far greater opportunities to both than a state which favours one over the other, or as at present does not exist at all) interest.

But no real progress – on the international refugee crisis, on IS, or on the basic fact that millions of human beings have done nothing wrong and yet are threatened with death every moment – either political or humanitarian can be made without peace.

It is time for the international community to stop chasing imaginary goals – and imaginary foes – through the desert, and return to the path back to civilisation. Marco Polo was talking about a real desert, but his words apply here just as much as they did in the Desert of Lop.

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