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Syria: now a human tragedy beyond words


For when sacred space becomes the battlefield, and we have forgotten how to disagree,
we have surely entered the darkest domains of the human spirit, a detestable place where cruelty and hate rule over compassion and mercy

Mark Austin – www.mirror.uk

While the cold war that is Syria rages on with Iran and Russia on the one side, and Israel and the western axis on the other, Syrians witness their country self-destruct and their lives unravel in brutal fashion. It’s a human tragedy beyond words, beyond description.

The figures – over 70,000 dead, up to 60,000 missing, five million displaced, millions starving, thousands detained, thousands raped, thousands tortured and thousands massacred – have become meaningless.

They are numbers that cannot express the suffering that Syrian civilians now endure in their smashed cities and overcrowded refugee camps. For these people burying their dead, their cries are that the rest of the world has to wake up. Recently the UN Relief Agency said it was running out of funds for Syria.

But while President Bashar al-Asad – who is seen to be the stumbling block – is propped up by Iranian and Hezbollah forces and Russian-supplied arms, he will hang grimly onto power. He will last as long his Iranian and Russian masters find him useful, and as long as the Syrian opposition remains politically fractured.

Called a ‘dead man walking’ by the US State Department last year, Asad is remarkably healthy for a political corpse. Iran, which regards Syria as its closest ally and supports Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, has much to lose in the region.

Iran’s concern is a hostile Sunni-led government (Syrians are 80% Sunni) as opposed to the Shi’ah-aligned, but thoroughly secular ruling Alawite minority. There are Iranian officials who believe leaving Syria will break a ‘golden thread’ running through Tehran to Damascus.

They believe it will also bring Israel – itching to make a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s non-existent WMD programme – to within a shouting distance of Tehran. It’s hardly likely, either, that Iran will be happy to contemplate a sectarian homeland, which has been suggested as a last resort for the 10-15% Alawite minority.

For Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have financially supported certain Free Syrian Army groups, an Iranian withdrawal from Syria and Lebanon would prevent their bogey, a ‘Shi’ah crescent’ from sweeping deeper into the Middle East and the Gulf through neighbouring Iraq.

Russia’s presence in Syria is because Damascus has been a faithful ally for over 50 years. Russia’s last cold-war naval base is in Tartus. With Moscow not willing to forgo a regional presence, Russia’s (and China’s) Security Council veto checkmates the western axis on NATO intervention.

For once, the US – wary of another Iraq – has been forced to be something of a bit player, lobbying for sanctions and providing what is essentially small-scale financial support to the FSA. Turkey has had to play a cautious diplomatic role, allowing refugees and humanitarian aid to cross its southern border, as has Jordan – who now wants a US sponsored buffer zone between it and Syria.

Russia, I believe, is now playing its ‘Iraq-Halliburton endgame’ in Syria, and like China and Iran, will probably want to benefit from deals to rebuild the country’s infrastructure once the conflict ends.

Since the Arab Spring, power vacuums have been created in the Middle East. Syria, for instance, has had little experience of political process. Asad’s few concessions to the uprising (which he blames on western-sponsored religious extremists) have all been geared to maintaining the status quo.

The point is that there has been no room for political discourse.

Politics, and not religion, is at the core of the Syrian problem –

and the Syrian mukhabarat, or security police, have clamped down on any opposition since 1970.

It’s unrealistic, therefore, to expect that the FSA – reflecting diverse viewpoints – would be able to coalesce overnight into a united political front. We all know how Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have struggled.

The disparate, if not rag-tag Free Syrian Army is unanimously resolute in removing Asad, but equally determined to guard its hard won turf. Many FSA commanders, for example, are said to be extremely unhappy about the extremism of Jabhat al-Nusra, the foreign-manned Al-Qaeda-linked unit said to be responsible for many of the bombings.

Bashar al-Asad, however, has had to deal with much more than revolution and mercenary Salafists. It has hardly been noted that he has also had to face economic meltdown – partly caused by his own greed, and partly by climate change.

With the economy moribund by the late 1990’s, the Asad regime resorted to privatisation. This resulted in wealth accumulating amongst the ruling elite, and it caused Syria’s already yawning poverty gap to widen even further.

A devastating drought in the north-east of the country saw an implosion of the agricultural sector, mass urbanisation, burgeoning youth unemployment and massive cost-of-living increases.

So when teenagers scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a school blackboard in the city of Deraa, and were viciously beaten and tortured (this incident sparked the uprising) it was an equal measure of political and economic frustration that moved the Syrian cataclysm.

Asad’s response to peaceful demonstrations was to turn his guns upon the crowds and to unleash the shabihah (notorious paramilitary gangs).

The escalation of the conflict is well-known, and the extent of its violence, horrifying. Human Rights Watch in its April report, ‘Death from the Skies’, accuses the Syrian air force of ‘indiscriminate’ and sometimes ‘deliberate’ attacks on civilian targets such as bakeries and hospitals.

A UN panel earlier this year also found that ‘gross human rights violations’ had occurred at the hands of the Syrian government. It found that the Free Syrian Army had also committed abuses, but not on the same scale as Asad’s forces.

But the most disturbing development has been the assassination of religious leaders. The most notable has been Shaikh Ramadan al-Buti, an internationally renowned scholar who was politically cautious, but reportedly on the brink of speaking out against the regime. He met his demise in a suicide blast whilst delivering a lecture in his Damascus mosque.

In one of the darkest moments of the Middle East conflict, over 40 died. Who is responsible for such a despicable act is not the question here.

For when sacred space becomes the battlefield, and we have forgotten how to disagree,
we have surely entered the darkest domains of the human spirit, a detestable place where cruelty and hate rule over compassion and mercy.

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