A chronicle of deaths foretold in Syria

A chronicle of deaths foretold in Syria
6 min read
17 Oct, 2019
Comment: In Syria, at every key moment, the West has shown little commitment to values or allies, writes Muhammad Idrees Ahmad.
Fleeing violence, some 500 Syrian Kurds have arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan this week [AFP]
Things in the Levant have changed more dramatically this week than they did over eight years. A moral and political catastrophe is unfolding. Much of it was predictable - and preventable.

Five weeks before Turkey blundered into Syria and five months into the regime and Russia's assault on Idlib when western leaders gathered for the G-7 summit in France, they did not discuss Syria. Discussions on global security focused exclusively on terrorism. Western leaders appeared unfazed by the killing of nearly 900 people and the displacement of 576,000 Syrians, most of them already refugees.

With regime forces advancing north, and with Russian jets scorching earth - with special fury reserved for schools and hospitals - the people in Idlib could only flee one way.

They gathered at the Turkish border and demanded entry. Home already to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Turkey, however, is less hospitable now than it had been in the past. With an ailing economy and political discontent, the ruling AKP is competing with the opposition in its xenophobia.

Under the strain of domestic politics, confronted with the prospect of new refugees, and faced with western indifference, Turkey has decided to release the pressure valves.

It has invaded northern Syria with the stated aim of dislodging PKK-affiliated armed groups and resettling refugees there to create a buffer zone. The plan was greenlighted by the US president Donald Trump who saw it as an opportunity to pull out American troops and earn plaudits from his nativist base and Russian superiors.

If the moral defects of this plan were obvious (refoulement is prohibited in international law), its strategic ones did not take long to reveal themselves. The Turkish incursion has so far made limited gains, but has already caused mass immiseration, destabilising the parts of Syria that were hitherto relatively peaceful, displacing 160,000 more people, mainly Kurds. Its allied militias have committed serious atrocities, including summary executions.

The Turkish incursion has so far made limited gains, but has already caused mass immiseration

Stripped of its US protection, the SDF struggled to resist Turkey's modern army and forestalled imminent defeat by turning to Assad. The help, however, has come at a huge price: the SDF has agreed to surrender all its territory to the regime and ceded its independence. The big winner, unsurprisingly, is Russia.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the West has been unmoved by the mass suffering inflicted on Syrians by the regime and its allies. Assad was even allowed to breach western red-lines with impunity. In 2014, when the West finally stirred into action, it was under the rubric of counterterrorism; Syria became another frontier in the global "War on Terror".

Unwilling to commit ground forces, however, the US looked for local proxies, offering training and arms to any local force ready to fight the Islamic State (IS).

In early 2014, an alliance of Syrian rebels had successfully driven out IS from much of Aleppo and Idlib. But since its victims were mainly Syrian, the then president Obama dismissed IS as a "JV [junior varsity] team".

Later, when IS captured Mosul and threatened US interests directly, the administration rushed to find a ground force that would commit exclusively to fighting IS. But requiring allies to foreswear actions against Assad to qualify for US support excluded Arab rebels, whose communities were being terrorised mainly by the regime.

The Kurds on the other hand were beset by IS but spared by the regime. For them the choice was straightforward. But in partnering with the YPG, the US was risking latent confrontation with Turkey to avoid active confrontation with the regime.

Turks perceive the YPG as an extension of the PKK, which has been engaged in a 40-year insurgency against Turkey. In empowering the group for short term gain, the US was risking tensions with Turkey, without making a long term commitment to protecting Kurds.

The US had armed the YPG enough to fight IS but not enough to resist Turkey. Their long-term security would depend on the US - and no US government could predict how a future one might view this alliance. Once IS was defeated, the future of this commitment, like all foreign policy, would be at the caprice of domestic politics.

The choice the US made was fateful: it angered Turkey; left Syrian Arabs vulnerable; and used Syrian Kurds as cannon fodder. It prioritised short term US interests over long term regional stability. It ignored the cause and focused on the symptom. The Kurds fought valiantly, sacrificing 11,000 lives. But they had been set up for betrayal.

But even the betrayal is not part of any coherent strategy. Erdogan and Trump have both taken consequential steps that promise little and risk much. Trump's greenlight to Erdogan was meant to be a concession, but US-Turkish relations have only deteriorated; Erdogan's incursion into Syria was meant to repatriate Syrians, but it has only empowered the regime that precipitated the refugee flight. US credibility, meanwhile, is at its lowest ebb; and Turkey's western alliances have frayed.

Once IS was defeated, the future of this commitment, like all foreign policy, would be at the caprice of domestic politics

In the two decades after the end of the Cold War, NATO had become irrelevant. But with a resurgent Russia and assertive China, at a time when the need for a defensive alliance is urgent, the West is weaker and more fragmented than it has been since the Second World War.

Russia is now the dominant power in the Middle East. Its autocratic style appeals to Middle Eastern dictators; but even citizens have lost their enchantment with the US. Western powers presented themselves as champions of liberty and human rights, but their commitment to these values proved no more meaningful than Russia's, which never professed such commitment.

Read more: Kurdish forces announce deal with Syrian regime

None of this was inevitable. All the US had to do different was to confront Assad when it mattered. The "realism" of narrowly defined interests has led to broader strategic setbacks. Turkey needs to be reined in - but neither the US nor the EU has any leverage left.

At key moments, such as Turkey's shooting down of a Russian jet in 2015, it was left to fend for itself. In Idlib, too, its efforts to deter Russian and regime advances received no support. Having gained nothing from the West, it expects to lose little. 

The Kurds fought valiantly, sacrificing 11,000 lives. But they had been set up for betrayal

The lesson is simple: When values are sacrificed for short term gain then neither the gains nor the values survive. In Syria, at every key moment, the West has shown little commitment to values or allies.

Russia, by contrast, has won because it avowed no values that it could be accused of abandoning and showed unwavering commitment to an ally defined by its lack of values. This is the new world order - an order that disdains truth, justice, and liberty; an order in which the only sacrosanct value is power. The world that abandoned Syria will now how have to abide a future shaped by it. We will see more grief and havoc yet.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @im_PULSE

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.