Syria: Whoever wins, the civilians lose

The Syrian government troops’ victory in Aleppo against the rebels and the western powers’ concern over civilian casualties may appear all too familiar to Sri Lankans. The allegations now being hurled at the Syrian troops are similar to the ones the then Sri Lankan government faced in 2009 when troops cornered the rebel leadership into a small stretch of beach in Mullivaikal.
Aleppo and Mullivaikal have many things in common. Firstly, it was the civilians who paid the biggest price. In both places, they were being used by the rebels as human shields. When they tried to move to the government side, they were shot at by the rebels. Then when the troops moved into take on the rebels, the West was not happy. It threatened to slap war crimes charges on the government.
Similarities apart, the Aleppo war, once again, highlights the inadequacy of the international system to protect civilians. United Nations reports which are usually issued after massacres bring virtually no relief to the battered victims.
The international community’s responsibility to protect civilians should come with the first signs of trouble and the UN must play a proactive role rather than displaying servitude to big powers. Besides, the so-called Responsibility-to-Protect doctrine is implemented selectively to suit the global agenda of big powers.
A critical look at the western media coverage of the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo makes one wonder whether the parties to the conflict use the plight of the civilians to promote their cause and demonise the enemy. The UN and the western nations, which issued statements this week condemning the summary executions of civilians allegedly committed by Syrian and Iranian-backed militia groups, were silent when al-Qaeda affiliated rebels overran Eastern Aleppo and carried out similar executions, four years ago. Some Western media narrations even justified these killings then by referring to the victims as regime collaborators. They were also silent when the Nour al-Din al-Zenki militia – the dominant rebel group in Eastern Aleppo — posted the video on internet this year showing how they tortured and slaughtered a 12-year-old Palestinian boy.
In an attempt to win the support of the people in the West towards the move to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Western media narrations and the speeches made by Western leaders, it appears, deliberately referred to the rebels as moderates whereas they were more like heartless liver-eating barbarians operating under various Islamic labels. The fact that they were al-Qaeda affiliates was rarely mentioned.
The Syrian civil war was not started by Assad. Although, he was an authoritarian president, he was popular; the Syrians had peace and the country was stable. He was reform-minded and showed an inclination to adopt economic liberalisation and multiparty democracy even before the Arab Spring in 2011.
Western educated Bashar al-Assad became president in 2000 following the death of his father Hafiz al-Assad. Long before the Arab Spring in the Middle East, Syria experienced a Damascus Spring with reform-minded Bashar’s ascension to power. Analysts says his reforms came in piecemeal because of the caution expressed by the old guard of the ruling Baath Party. Thus his reforms initially were largely in the socio-economic field. He began the process of economic liberalisation without privatising state enterprises. He gave new impetus to education with a vision to give higher education every citizen. Education up to the university level and health services were free in Syria and the country had a per capita income of US$ 5,000 before the war, despite it being only a small-scale oil exporter.
Little has been spoken in the Western media about Bashar al-Assad reconciliation moves before the war. He released thousands of political prisoners, mainly Islamists, who were arrested during his father’s regime.
With the first signs of the rebellion — which was foreign funded — he took steps to introduce political reforms in consultations with the opposition. These reforms limited the presidential office to two seven-year terms — a bold move in a region where rulers perpetuate dynastic politics and showed little or no inclination to adopt democracy.
If only the West had given Assad a chance to implement the reforms, Syria would not have seen this devastating war. But the West listened to the Arab monarchies which feel that nothing poses a bigger danger to their political power than democracy taking root in the region.
The West, which is benefiting through multibillion business deals with the sheikhdoms, endorsed the regime change plan for Syria. This was because Assad had denied Saudi Arabia and Qatar permission to build a pipeline across Syria to send their fuel and gas to Europe via Turkey. This could have brought economic benefits to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, but the plan had the undertones of economic warfare to punish Russia. If the pipeline project had come through, it would have undermined Russia’s oil and gas market in Europe.
The Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt offered the West and its Gulf allies an opportunity to topple the Syrian regime.
Foreign-funded rebel groups sprang up in Syria. They were largely led by military defectors but their followers lacked fighting capabilities. Against this backdrop, al-Qaeda cells which were dormant in Syria came to the fore. Al Nusra group was the most successful of them. Then came ISIS, which wanted first to bring all the other rebel groups under its command and then take the fight to Assad. Al-Nusra did not agree to the ISIS plan and this led to a war between the two powerful extremist groups. When the West came under pressure from its citizens to take on the barbaric ISIS, al-Nusra and other Islamic rebel groups were accorded a ‘moderate’ label so that they could get western military aid. But often the military aid supplied to the so-called moderate groups ended up with ISIS either through collusion or after a fight.
We are not saying that the rebels are bad and the Syrian military is good. Stories from Aleppo spoke about atrocities committed by the Syrian army and its allies. A man speaking from the last stronghold of the rebels asked fatwa from a religious leader whether he could kill his daughters before they are raped by the advancing Syrian forces. Also coming from the war front are reports that the fleeing rebels have killed a large number of civilians trying to flee to the government side. Who is killing whom and to what extent these reports are true are difficult to say. What can be said with certainty is that civilians are dying and are being treated as disposables.
However, Assad should be commended for agreeing to truces that provided rebels a safe passage. In Eastern Aleppo, under the protection of Syria’s main ally, Russia, the rebels are allowed to go to Turkey.
The Aleppo victory, achieved by the Syrian troops supported by Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah, and the ceasefire deal worked out by Russia and Turkey, leaving out the US and its Gulf allies, may signal a speedy end to the Syrian war and a defeat of the West’s Syria policy.

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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