More than 400,000 deaths.
Four million refugees plus 7.6 million Syrians displaced within their country.
Widespread bombardment of cultural heritage sites and urban centers.
These are some of the costs of the war in Syria. A war that has now waged for over five years and doesn’t appear to be stopping. The human cost is tremendous. And the causes are many. In the book Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe, Charles Glass looks at how this war came about. The current conflict traces its roots to over 100 years of external influence, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement which saw French and British powers drawing the borders of present-day Syria. Glass summarizes this history succinctly as evidenced below.
Just as “Aleppo has been destroyed…The country is being destroyed” (pp. 125), activist and professor Zaidoun al-Zoabi laments. In the chapter, “The Revolution Died in Aleppo,” Glass encapsulates the elements of class, geography, religion, politics which fostered the war and the destruction of Aleppo:
“Syria’s war is anything it’s fighters want it to be. It is a class war of the suburban proletariat against a state army financed by the bourgeoisie. It is a sectarian war in which the Sunni Arab majority is fighting to displace an Alawi ruling class. It is a holy war of Sunni Muslims against all manifestations of Shiism, especially the Alawite variety. The social understanding on which Allepo prided itself are unravelling Muslim fundamentalists have targeted Christian churches and Shiite mosques. Arabs have fought Kurds. Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis have crossed the border to fight each other in Syria.” (pp.122)
The violent suppression of the 2011 revolution by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad quickly lead many to take up arms. These fighters formed different groups and began a civil war. Outside interests and military powers attached themselves to either government or rebel forces. All sides killed civilians and helped destroy the country. The Arab Spring turned to the Syrian Winter.
Cold War thinking lives on today with proxy wars – instigated by a major power which does not itself become involved – being fought in Syria as well as Iraq and Yemen. The war in Syria is no longer about Syrian needs. Powerful nations have exasperated these wars to serve their own interests, as Glass writes:
“Syria has become the venue of what [Mokhtar Lamani] called “a proxy war” or wars: the United States versus Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey versus Arab nationalist over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre-World War I dominance. The original demands for reform and justice of the peaceful protesters at the start of the uprising in 2011 are as forgotten as, two years and millions of deaths into the Great War, was Austria-Hungary’s July 23, 1914, ultimatum to Serbia.” (pp. 54)
Rebel groups received training in Jordan and Turkey thanks to covert help from the United States, Britain and France. Arms are paid by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, flowing through the porous borders of Turkey. These open borders help the Islamic State (ISIS) fund its operations by selling stolen oil and antiquities.
On the other side, the Syrian Army receives the help of the Russian air force, as well as strategic and financial assistance from Iran, as well as Shiites in Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon.
What is clear is that the Syrian people are losing. Various nations are playing a chess game with real lives at stake and no side is willing to cooperate to end this mess. The rise of competing violent ideologies in the region will have untold consequences going forward:
“The growth of Iranian influence on the Syrian government pits two theocratic ideologies, the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s ‘wali al faqih’, or “rule of (Islamic) jurists,” versus the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi fundamentalism of ISIS as well as the Turkish-backed, al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. This has led many Syrians who don’t subscribe to Sunni or Shiite fundamentalist ideology to welcome Russian military engagement. In recent weeks, Russia has pledged to continue military support for Assad’s forces. Many Syrians welcome this less to confront ISIS and its like-minded jihadi rivals than to offset the Iranians and their clients from Hezbollah, the Iraqi militias, and Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazaras.” (pp. 141)
In the epilogue, Glass calls for a strategy. Not a strategy of revenge, but one of diplomacy. The world powers – USA and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran – are largely to blame for fighting this proxy war at the expense of the Syrian people. They need to look for peace to end this war.