Bashar al-Assad grafitti. Photo: Flickr Commons
Bashar al-Assad grafitti. Photo: Flickr Commons

After protesting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Hamza al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old boy from the southwestern Syrian city of Daraa, was arrested and subjected to torture and mutilation. But he was far from the only victim of the treatment the dictator has inflicted on people protesting against the multiple failures of his regime.

What began as a peaceful protest for democratic reforms in Damascus on March 15, 2011, has been transformed into the biggest human catastrophe in modern times with an estimated death toll of 470,000 and 1.9 million wounded, according to a report released by the Syrian Center for Policy Research in February 2016.

The events that started in 2011 arose from a long-nursed grudge against the power-hungry Assads – Hafiz al-Assad and his son Bashar. The father ruled for 29 years and the son has held the country in his grip for 17.

Between 2000 and 2011 under Bashar al-Assad, three major problems plagued Syria: widespread corruption, high employment and political repression. Unmindful of people’s predicaments, Assad, like any autocrat in modern times who takes shelter behind “terrorists backed by foreign hands” rhetoric, decided to use brutal force to suppress the voices of dissent that erupted in Daraa as part of the Arab Spring.

The protest, initially seeking reform, transformed into a call for Assad’s resignation. The state repression that followed was met with more violent protests, which swept across Syria, and which encountered even more draconian state suppression, turning the country into a battlefield.

While the United Nations and many Western governments criticized Assad for suppressing the right to free speech through military crackdowns and brutal killings, the protesters, with help from defectors from Assad’s military, armed themselves to fight the government forces.

Into this bloody turmoil entered outside powers: Iran to protect the Shiite regime, Russia to back Iran and block the US, and Saudi Arabia to contain Iranian influence and protect Syria’s 74% Sunni population, which is ruled by its 13% Shiite population.

By providing political, military and financial support to the rebel groups, these outside players helped aggravate the situation and gave Assad an excuse to turn Syria into a battleground. Assad’s Iranian backers and the outside powers supporting the Sunnis bifurcated the Syrians on communal lines, pitching one against the other, and what had begun as a protest against government failure turned into a pogrom.

In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed, comprising officers who had defected from the Syrian Armed Forces, and it declared the establishment of the first organized military force aimed at overthrowing Assad’s government. Then began the government crackdown and the retaliation by the FSA, and in June 2012 Assad pledged to crush the anti-government uprising.

Into the escalating mayhem entered the Hayat Tahrir al-Salam or al-Nusra Front, followed by Islamic State (IS), to proclaim control over northeastern Syria, and the war in Syria has since been fought on many fronts by many players. Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, thermobaric bombs and ballistic missiles have been freely and extensively used against civilians.

In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army was formed, comprising officers who had defected from the Syrian Armed Forces, and it declared the establishment of the first organized military force aimed at overthrowing Assad’s government

Assad metamorphosed his monumental failure into a bloody Shia-Sunni war, butchered thousands of people just to maintain his grip on power and involved many players – Russian-backed government forces, Turkish-backed rebel brigades, and a Kurdish militia alliance supported by the US.

Thousands of Shiite militiamen from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are fighting alongside the Syrian army, in order, they say, to protect Shia holy sites.

The turmoil intensified when the FSA, the Army of the Mujahideen and IS engaged in a devastating war during 2013-14.

Starting in September 2014, the US jumped into the fray by bombing IS targets but it, like Russia, intended not to end the war but to play into the conflict, in this case by targeting government forces.

In September 2015, Russia, in support of Assad, launched air strikes against FSA forces and IS terrorists, but it did not spare civilian areas, and by late 2016, the air strikes had devastated anti-government groups.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has poured in millions of dollars to help Sunni survivors, while Iran, with Hezbollah, has provided fighters, weapons and money to back Assad. Then in August 2016, Turkish troops entered the arena to drive IS out of Syria, and in January this year, Turkey launched deadly attacks to drive the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) out of Afrin.

Although Turkey supported the anti-government forces, it kept its own security in mind by containing the YPG militia, which Ankara accuses of being an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.

In April 2017, US President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian air base that the US said was behind a deadly chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Washington’s key ally on the ground has been an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since 2015, its fighters have driven IS militants out of most of the territory it controlled in Syria. In January this year, the US said it would maintain an open-ended military presence in SDF-controlled territory to ensure the enduring defeat of IS, to counter Iranian influence, and help end the civil war.

Amid the worst human catastrophe – death, destruction and refugee crisis – the world powers and the UN have failed to achieve peace in Syria. With 5.6 million people, mostly women and children, fleeing to other countries as refugees, about 70% of the population living in extreme poverty, and thousands held in jails, there seems to be no respite in this raging war. Sometimes Aleppo, sometimes Ghouta, the war goes on. There is no decisive victory.

There is no decisive defeat either. And Assad is still adamantly against negotiating a solution with the opposition, let alone stepping down. Syria will see the dawn of peace only when Bashar al-Assad forsakes power.

M Shamsur Rabb Khan

M Shamsur Rabb Khan is assistant professor in the Department of English, King Khalid University, Abha, Saudi Arabia. He specializes in security issues, foreign relations and terrorism. He is writing a book on right-wing terror in India.

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