• Ola Rifai - University of St Andrews

2020 and Syria’s Sinking Boat



In mid-December, the Syrian regime and the Russian troops launched an air and ground assault on Maaret al-Numan and Saraeb towns in Idlib province in the northwest of the country. Idlib is the last rebel stronghold in Syria and is home to some three million civilians including those who fled violence in other parts of the country during the brutal war. According to the UN, between December 11th and 25th some 235,000 people fled Idlib due to the heavy bombardment. Heartbreaking images streaming from there show parents digging to rescue their children from under the rubble of collapsed homes. Such dehumanizing pictures that we have become used to watching throughout the course of the Syrian war.


Indeed, the attack on Idlib seems to end 2019 with two important notes regarding the unfolding Syrian drama: First, the regime neither respects nor considers any political solution to the conflict. Second, regional and international patrons are playing an extremely destabilizing role by which they employ an inflammatory rhetoric that further complicates the conflict.


Since the very onset of the conflict, at the point where it was still a peaceful movement demanding social justice, the Syrian regime’s logic was to eliminate all opponents and employ the famous military and security solution (al-hal amny and al-hal ‘askary) to address the ‘crisis’ – as the regime labelled it by then.


To this end, the regime deployed the military, tortured hundreds of thousands, bombed cities, gassed civilians, and displaced half of the population. In 2012/2013 when the regime controlled merely 60% of its territories, not a single political compromise was adhered to. There is neither a carrot nor a stick to push the regime toward any political reconciliation with his Syrian foes. Henceforth, political initiatives in Geneva, Sochi, and Astana have all turned into a fiascos.


Realistically speaking, any road map to the conflict should be based on a political solution, but it should be accompanied with some military gains. Economic sanctions won’t be adequate to push the regime to the negotiation table. Even the latest ‘Caesar Act’ by the Trump administration won’t change the calculus of the Syrian leader and won’t be the endgame.


In this light, regional and international powers lacked a clear vision of how to tackle the Syrian conflict from its very beginning, and they shared an opaque agenda. The U.S administration and European countries seemed confident about the regime change. Saudi, Qatar and Turkey were anticipating the fall of the Assad regime too. All of them sought to profit from the conflict and were swinging stances according to their self-interests. Rivals became allies and enmity changed to amity at the Syrian expense.


A couple of weeks before the Idlib assault took place, Mr. Erdogan who funds and trains militias in Idlib, unleashed these militias (who are mainly Sunni Arabs) against the Kurds and occupied several towns. Yet, he did not help his allies in countering the regime and the Russian attack on their towns. Instead, he turned his back to the flow of refugees escaping Idlib. Furthermore, he is scheduled to fly to Moscow next week to meet Mr. Putin while, at the same time, he is sending Syrian militants to fight in Libya as part of his new adventure for power in the region.


In reality, all state and non-state entrepreneurs played destabilizing roles during the different stages of the conflict; stirring up animosity among Syrian factions and further complicating the scene.


Paradoxically, by the end of every year since 2011, observers have claimed that this is the darkest year for Syrians, however, alas, it seems that the ‘darkest’ is yet to be seen. As Syrians welcome 2020, they are still held captives in a sinking boat.


Idlib al-khadra or the green Idlib as it is known to be among Syrians for its charming landscape, enjoyed a crucial role in the peaceful stages of the Syrian Revolution as well as the violent ones. The province was famous for its eloquent placards and intelligent activists. In October 2011, social media was abuzz with one placard held in the town of Kafr Nubel saying: “down with the regime and the opposition, down with the Arabic and Islamic Umma, down with the Security Council, down with the world…down with everything…”.


This might be the wish that every Syrian is whispering on New Year’s Eve.


*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.

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The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.

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