Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Syria is Burning: The Devastating Effects of Nonintervention

I have a Syrian friend named Ahmed, a kind and friendly owner of a local cafe in Allston. As I'm grabbing my morning coffee, Ahmed and I talk politics often as he knows my interest in international relations focuses mainly on the Middle East. In our four years of friendship, he's offered some of the most astute and accurate observations of Middle Eastern politics I've ever heard. I remember a conversation we had early last summer that began as most of our conversations do, with me asking how his family still in Syria was doing. With his characteristic smile and cheerful demeanor, he dismissed my concerns. "They all live in Aleppo," he said. "The regime could never afford to touch Aleppo. That's where all of the rich and powerful people live."

Aleppo in October 2012.

Fast-forward eight months to today and much of Aleppo is a burned out shell, reflecting the desperate situation across all of Syria. Since the end of the Eid al-Adha “ceasefire” in late October, fighting has ramped up along with casualties, compounded by a harsh winter faced by civilians who have in many cases lost everything. In a conflict that has left at least 70,000 people dead, 2 million internally displaced, and 700,000 refugees, the frontlines have stagnated throughout much of the country, leading to fears of a drawn out and devastating war of attrition. Since the uprising began in March 2011, Western governments have contented themselves with tentative UN moves handily blocked by Russia and China. Regional powers support whichever side serves their interests, and competing factions within Syria’s neighbors oftentimes arm both.

Yet the security issues that will arise if the conflict is allowed to continue have the potential to devastate an already fragile region. The two comparable civil wars of the last few decades in Lebanon and Iraq paint a grim picture for Syria’s future. In Lebanon, over the course of 15 years 120-150,000 people died, 900,000 were internally displaced, and 250,000 became refugees. In Iraq, seven years of war and occupation left at least 100,000 dead, 2 million internally displaced, and 2.7 million refugees. Neither country has achieved “stability,” and spates of violence continue to flare up, especially in Iraq where the civil war is feared by some to be mounting again. Sectarian, ethnic, and other religious fault lines that crisscross the region are being exacerbated by Syria’s civil war, and observers are hedging their bets on which neighbor will succumb to the conflict first. Iraq and Lebanon seem to be the frontrunners, meaning that this civil war could dredge up the ghosts of the very recent past resulting in a regional implosion that is unlikely to leave any state unscathed.

The humanitarian situation in Syria is also dismal. The UN’s “winterization” plan received less than half of the requested aid in pledges. How much of that will end up being delivered will probably amount to somewhere in the range of 30-40 percent of what was requested. Furthermore, the UN’s aid request is probably underestimated by a wide margin. Thus, the 2 million internally displaced Syrians as well as their brethren suffering under the conflict in their own homes spent the winter without crucial supplies like blankets, heating fuel, food, water, and medicine.  Estimates of Syrians currently in need of some form of assistance range as high as 15 million, ten times the estimate of the UN and much greater than the number the rest of the world seems prepared to support.

Damascus blanketed in snow in January. Courtesy of Reuters.

Refugees streaming from Syria at an ever-increasing rate also threaten to destabilize the entire region. The UN estimates that 5,000 people are leaving Syria every day, and we have already seen how the numbers have been lowballed. The Middle East is no stranger to massive refugee flows: beginning with the Palestinian Nakba, first the Lebanese and then the Iraqis made their way into neighboring countries by the hundreds of thousands and millions. The Syrian civil war is no different: of the 700,000 refugees, more than 265,000 have fled to Lebanon, a country that is already embroiled with sectarian strife where communal violence has grown at an alarming rate since the beginning of the conflict. Lebanon’s refugee resources have also already been stretched to the breaking point by its Palestinian population; the refugees that arrive from Syria have no formal aid institution to call upon and are living wherever they can given the absence of Syrian refugee camps. Their presence has strained water, food, housing, education, and medical resources, leading to friction with the local populations that has escalated to violence. While refugee camps might seem to be the worst option to some, in reality they provide a sense of community, focal point for aid activities, central location for support services, and better living conditions than in the slums and outskirts of many cities where refugees are currently forced to take up residence. They also remove the refugee population from the already overburdened urban centers, decreasing the likelihood of conflict with the native Lebanese.

Like Lebanon, another refugee population complicates the situation of Syrian refugees in Iraq. More than 450,000 Iraqi refugees were residing in Syria as of December 2012. The UN estimates that by Dec. 2013, only 310,000 will remain. The rest will become refugees in other nations or returnees to Iraq, hardly an attractive option for those who fled the country for fear for their lives. About 80,000 Syrians have also fled to Iraq, inflaming ethnic tensions as Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds jostle to support matching sectarian factions across the border. In Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, support has taken a lethal form as arms, fighters, and money (much of it from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Sunni-led governments) flows across the border to Sunni rebel groups. Meanwhile, the Shi’ite-dominated Maliki government has sided with longtime allies Iran and Bashar al-Asad in condemning efforts for outside intervention and providing support to the beleaguered regime. Kurdish groups in the north are facing increased pressure to push for autonomy or independence as Turkey and Syria’s Kurds position themselves for dominance in Kurdistan. The ethno-religious component of Syria’s civil war may prove to be the most deadly for its neighbors in Lebanon and Iraq.

Syria's ethno-religious composition courtesy of the CIA. Read: regional cluster-cluck.

The international response to the Syrian conflict has been tepid on all sides. Although Russia has been providing material and technical support to the Syrian government, it has also acknowledged the possibility of an opposition victory. Key figures in the US government including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and Gen. Martin Dempsey (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) have backed provision of “lethal support” to the rebels, yet the administration has repeatedly rejected such calls. Part of the problem is the amorphous nature of the revolution’s supporters: ranging from secularist liberals to hardcore Islamist extremists. Arming one group will arm the rest, leaving behind a possible political disaster for the US if the arms make it into the wrong hands. Yet the superpower has had few qualms about arming unsavory characters in the past; likely the real reason behind the administration’s hesitation is the American public’s disenchantment with external interventions for humanitarian purposes, especially when it is unclear whether or not we would win the fight.

Although much of the fighting has bogged down, there have been a few rays of hope for the opposition since January. The capture of the Taftanaz air base in January followed by the Jarrah air base in February are important strategic victories that coincide with the rebels’ control over much of the northern part of the country. Yet most of the south is still either contested or firmly in government control. Parts of Aleppo and Damascus resemble post-WWII Europe from all the bombings and air strikes. If overwhelming military and technical assistance is not provided to one side or another, the conflict will almost certainly drag on in the manner of the Lebanese civil war. Whatever the costs of intervention might be, surely the costs of inaction will be greater to regional and human security. The United States and other nations have the capability of bringing a somewhat definitive end to a conflict that has already spiraled out of control. Bashar al-Asad will never willingly oversee his own departure from office, but we could give him much stronger incentives to do so. 

Blue: Contested areas
Green: Government-controlled
Brown: Opposition-controlled

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