Saturday, 20 February 2016

Syrian Conflict - Protests, Revolution, Civil War and Refugees

Syrian Conflict: Protests, Revolution,
Civil War and Refugees

Dr. Mozammel Haque

While the world leaders gathered in London Donor Conference, London and the UN convened peace talks in Geneva, it is important first to look at what are the issues and concerns of the international community and how it comes into this level; I want to go back to the developments from protests to civil war passing through revolution, ISIS and civil war and now refugees. In this connection, I would like to mention there were three talks held at the Chatham House, London, on Syria and Middle East – i) Inside Syria: Life Amidst Revolution and War on 28 January, 2016; ii) Syria’s Crisis: Victims, Culprits and the Next Stage, on 3rd of February, 2016 and iii) Overcoming Regional Challenges in the Middle East: An Iranian Perspective, on 4th of February, 2016.

Since 9/11, the world crises are moving from one place to another; from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and now Syria and refugees leaving deaths and destruction and now refugees to the neighbouring countries.

Syrian crisis is frightening as well as distressing issue which is now under discussion in Geneva. The Syrian crisis started with protests against the Bashar al-Assad government and with the demand for the regime change, then to revolution to the present problem of ISIS, head cutter, and civil war resulting in exodus of large scale refugees to European countries besides neighbouring countries.

Let us see how it started five years ago and how it comes to the present catastrophic stage is an alarming story. From a local issue it turned into regional problem to a level of international crisis where there are Iran and Russia on one side and the regional Arab countries and US and Europe on the other.

Syrian population
Before we start with the Syrian conflict, it is important to know the ethnic and religious diversities of the country.

“Today about 65 per cent of Syrians are Sunni Arabs, Alawi Arabs are 10 to 12 per cent. The mainly Arab Christians, mostly Orthodox and Eastern Catholic, but also Assyrian, Chaldean and Armenian, including a small Aramaic-speaking community at Maalula, constitute 10 per cent. Kurds, almost all Sunnis, speaking two main dialects, account for another 10 per cent. The remainder are Druze, Ismailis, Twelve Shia, and Turkmen. The Bedouin, their circulation blocked by postcolonial borders, are mostly settled now. Of course, these categories fail to reflect the enormous diversity within each group. Sunni Arabs, for instance, are differentiated by urban-rural, regional, tribal, familial, and of course gender and class cleavages, and then by individual temperament and experience,” wrote Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab in his book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, (published by Pluto Press, London, 2016, page 2)

Describing how the protests started and turned into revolution, Mr. Robin wrote in his book, “Syria was once known as a ‘Kingdom of Silence’. In 2011 it burst into speech – not in one voice but in millions. On an immense surge, of long-suppressed energy, a non-violent protest movement crossed sectarian and ethnic boundaries and spread to every part of the country. Nobody could control it – no party, leader or ideological programme, and least of all the repressive apparatus of the state, which applied gunfire, mass detention, sexual assault and torture, even of children, to death. (p. viii)

“Revolutionary Syrians often describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, as a kind of rebirth. The regime’s savage response was a baptism of horror after which there was no going back. Not silenced but goaded into fiercer revolt, the people organised in revolutionary committees and called not just for reform but for the complete overthrow of the system. Eventually, as soldiers defected and civilians took up arms to defend their communities, the revolution militarised. And then where the state collapsed or was beaten back, people set up local councils, and distribution networks, radio stations and newspapers, expressing communal solidarity in the most creative and practical ways,” Mr. Robin described development from the protest to revolution and also narrated the role played by the local councils.

Dr. Robin at Chatham House
As I mentioned earlier, there was a meeting on “Inside Syria: Life Amidst Revolution and War,” at the Chatham House, London on Thursday, 28th of January, 2016, chaired by Dr. Neil Quilliam, Acting Head, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, London. Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab, the author of the book – “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” was one of the speakers. He started first talking about the geopolitics of Syria. He said, “I am going to talk a little bit about geopolitics too; – not only geopolitics; to understand the geopolitics you have to look at what’s happening on the ground. You have to start by listening to the Syrian people; hearing what are their experiences and motivations are; different voices; different aspects of the Syrian people and then build your picture from there. I don’t think you should start from the theory about Iran and Saudi Arabia or America and Russia and then tries to apply that to real revolutionary and war situations.”

While talking about geopolitics, Mr. Robin said that I have to start very briefly about America in Iraq. He said, “It is noticeable that in the previous decades Britain and America invaded Iraq for various reasons; one of the supposed reasons was to impose democracy; to bring democracy with tanks; and that course does not work out very well; they did get out dictator; they did bring sort of democracy in a very sectarian way; and ended up in a sectarian civil war. It was not just only American’s fault; you have to blame Saddam Hussein for his sectarian oppression of his opponents using sectarianism to view as Assad is using sectarianism in Syria to divide and rule in Syria purposes and many other regional players and global players inside Iraq and ended up in a civil war; after which the civil war American changed their policy and they recognised the disaster which was happening  and brought with many soldiers according to Rumsfeld doctrine and then tried to stabilise it and most importantly they worked with the Sunni Arabs to help them to get Al-Qaeda out and they worked with the Shia communities to help them to alienate or get marginalised the Shia extremists and then by 2010 after things come down a little bit democracy begun to work a bit. In 2010 people voted against sectarian parties and you have Alawais who has his problems. The Alawi bloc one more seat than the Maliki bloc; one seat more; so it is a very close and then the Iranians want to keep there; the Maliki wants to keep there and Obama sent Ambassador Chris Hill to Iraq to explain to Alawi for the sake of stability he should not make of government. I think things might have been different if you have been made the government and then the protest started in Sunni Arab areas in 2011 had not been met by violence.”

Local Councils – Democracy
After describing how America attempted to install democracy in Iraq, Mr. Robin said, “Anyway, that’s we are. This attempts to install democracy in Iraq which was a huge story decades ago.” Then, he read about a man who, in Syria, according to him, should be much more famous than anyone else.

Mr. Robin read from his book about Omar Aziz, “Omar Aziz (fondly known to friends as Abu Kamel) was born in Damascus. An economist, anarchist, husband and father, he returned from exiled in 2011 at the age of 63 and committed himself to the revolution. Working with locals to distribute humanitarian aid to suburbs under regime attack, he was inspired by the diverse actions he came across - the various forms of protests as well as the solidarity and mutual aid within and between communities, including voluntary provision of emergency medical and legal support, turning homes into field hospitals and food collection. He saw in such acts ‘the spirit of the Syrian people’s resistance to the brutality of the system, the systematic killing and destruction of community.” (page.68).

He also continued, “Aziz believed that protests alone were insufficient to bring about a radical transformation, and that a new society had to be built from the bottom up to challenge authoritarian structures and transform value systems. He produced a paper in the revolution’s eighth month, when the movement was still largely peaceful and before the poor people was liberated and in which he actually advocated the establishment of local councils. These were envisaged as horizontally organised grassroots forums in which people could work together to achieve three primary goals –to manage their lives independently of the state; to collaborate collectively; and to initiate a social revolution, locally, regionally and nationally.  He proposed that council network to foster solidarity and mutual aid, and to share experience. Aziz helped establish the first local council in Zabadani, and then others in Barzeh, Daraya and Douma.

He also mentioned, “Omar Aziz did not live to witness the extent of the challenges that would beset Syria’s revolutionaries, or the successes and failures of their experiments in self-organisation. He was arrested at his home on 20th November 2012. Shortly beforehand, he said: “We are no less than the Paris Commune Workers - they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” He was detained with 85 others in a cell of four metres by four. This contributed to the deterioration of his already weak health. He was later transferred to Adra prison, where he died in February 2013, a day before his 64th birthday.

“But his vision has a huge impact. Local Councils (sometimes known as revolutionary councils) sprouted up in 2012 especially and by necessity in the north as the regime withdrew. With the regime’s retreat came the withdrawal of government services. Local councils ensured the provision of the humanitarian aid and the fulfilment of basic needs including water, electricity, education and waste disposal. They coordinated on security with armed resistance groups. The councils follow no single model, and each has a different size and capacity; members are civil activists, family and tribal leaders, and people selected for their technical or professional skills. In general, they implement a formal of representative democracy, and free local elections have been held in some areas – the first free elections in Syria in over four decades,” Mr. Robin read from his book the role of the local councils. (page69)

Mr. Robin said, “We went to war decades ago for the sake of democracy in the Middle East; it seems to me incredible when the people on the ground doing in the most difficult circumstances; not asking you to bring tanks and planes; they were just doing it themselves out of necessity. Those of the people we should be supportive and they should be the part of solutions, if we are seriously moving in the direction of the solutions.”

“It is shocking that we don’t know about the Local Councils; we don’t know about more than 63 papers and magazines in Syria; we don’t know about all the radio stations; about the explosions of popular arts and so on. I think that’s the part of the story. This is just as important more important than the jihadists cutting heads off. It points to a big failure of the media that we don’t know about this; of course these councils are not perfect, some of them are dysfunctional because of the conflict going on between factions or families,” he mentioned.

Geneva Talks
Talking about peace process going to be held at Geneva, Mr. Robin said, “Go to war actually happening at the moment. We are not heading towards settlement in my opinion. What we got is a peace process so-called which is being run by Russians on Russian terms. It is awful diplomacy. If we have a strategy, strategy which is going to lead to peace and even it is not going to end what the revolutionary Syrian people might want; at the moment everybody wants peace; if we have a strategy towards it then we need lots of diplomacy but we don’t have strategy towards it.”

Speaking about the Russian air strikes, Mr. Robin said, “80% of Russian bombs are falling on the opposition to both of ISIS and Assad; they are bombing democratic nationalist opposition that we need for any solution. They created a quarter million or more refugees since the bombing begun. When the Syrian opposition negotiating team told the Americans that it did not want to come to the Geneva meeting unless there is a cessation of bombing; because they will have no credibility amongst their own people if they did. The Americans are apparently told them that’s a pre-conditioning that’s we can do that can be negotiated later. The Russians want to select their own opposition. Now it seems there are two opposition going to be invited.”

“What the Russians want to do is to destroy democratic nationalist opposition. So the all what you have left is ISIS or Nusra which would be more long term problem than ISIS, because ISIS could be defeated at war but Nusra is much more intelligent; they want to get rid of all of the opposition except the extremist jihadists. Then there is a choice; between Assad and the extremist jihadist,” he mentioned.

Mr. Robin forecasted “some mad people all over the world for decades. There would be squabbled by Iran, Russia and the local warlords and it would be just a security disaster primarily for the Syrian people and then for the region and after that for the whole world especially Europe because we got you know Europe is just focusing on the symptoms at the moment; the mad jihadist, head cutters and the refugee issue which is a growing issues; when we are not really focusing on the causes of this or even talking about the causes of this and I think that is a disaster because this is still escalating,” said Mr. Robin in the discussion at the meeting.

Commenting on the international role in Syrian conflict, Mr. Robin observed in his book, “The Syrian revolution did not receive the international support and recognition it deserved and not for want of information.”

Mr. Robin also mentioned in his book, “Russian troops are now openly fighting alongside the army of the dictator. Despite international consensus that the attacks have not targeted ISIS positions, we have yet to see any forceful condemnations regarding the killing of civilians, and this leads us to believe that the international community is tacitly approving of these attacks. We believe that any partnership with Russia, which claims to target ISIS and which has the blessing of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, will serve only to accelerate the pace of killing and widen the circle of devastation. These conditions will inevitably lead to even more extremism.” (pages-223-224)

At the moment, Turkey France and some Arab countries are complaining against the inaction of the American government. Mr. Robin observed in his book, “Today, Assad, Russia and America share the skies, occasionally bombing ISIS but more usually the struggling Syrian people and their resistance militias. This key event will greatly influence the future transformations of Jihadism, both inside and beyond Syria.”

Speaking about the consequences of Russian air campaign, Mr. Robin wrote in his book, “The Russian air campaign will probably be accompanied by a regime-Iranian ground offensive on northern Homs and elsewhere to shore up Assad’s rump state to the Coast to Damascus.”

Russian airplanes  bombarding the villages of Aleppo bordering Turkey forcing thousands of civilians to flee while the UN envoy is sitting with Syrian government representatives and the opposition parties in Geneva. Refugees in Lebanon are more than the total population of England. The destructed houses and cities in Syria look like cities and towns after the Second World War.

Mr. Robin also explores the role of the international community, particularly the involvement of Russia, the US, Iran and also ISIS. He considers what a solution to the Syrian conflict could look like: could we see a partition of Syria and will this be a peaceful and permanent resolution to the conflict?

Mina al-Oraibi
Mina al-Oraibi, Journalist on Middle East Affairs, another speaker at the meeting. She was optimistic. She described latest development. Ms. Mina spoke about the recent talks in Geneva. Since the last talks in January 2014, what happens?

Russian military involvement
Ms. Mina said, “We have the dynamic thing change with the Russians since now militarily involved from the 30th of September 2015. There are air strikes by all counts; between 70% to -90% of those air strikes are on opposition; i.e. anti-ISIS and anti-Assad because the Russians do want to create dynamic that the Syrian regime and the Iranian regime let them get go either with Assad or the terrorists. And in order to create that dynamic people will say we will deal with Assad rather than with ISIS the head cutter also. So that is an important development.”

Iran Nuclear Pact
Ms. Mina said, “The Second important development is the fact that Iran nuclear deal is now signed off and implementation is underway.  .So the Americans they do no longer worry that this may get derailed. When we went to Geneva two years ago and we have different civil societies activists there; they have different number of oppositions; and you have lots of opposition numbers also against the process two years ago as you have now. There really was a sense that Americans will not vote into the process; because there was a bigger strategy and game which was this Iranian nuclear deal. Now Iran has been done. But you have a different regional players involved actually talking with each other not agreeing on very much. Still that you had that little support.” And finally you have that fine UN envoy for those who know him, he is UN envoy is a relentless diplomat but also – really working behind the scene and has been criticised by all sides which means he is doing something right.

Ms. Mina also mentioned about ISIS. She said, “Of course the big issues now you have ISIS. You do not have enough format two years ago. So at least publicly all sides say they do not ISIS to be a force to be reckoned with; even though by all means actors are manipulating the use of ISIS for their own use from all sides of this problem.”

Terrible Humanitarian crisis
Ms. Mina also mentioned about the terrible humanitarian crisis. She said, “Now there are 18 areas inside Syria where you have people starving or being starved; and there is a real concern that there is at least 4.5 million people who are either in besieged areas in Syria or you cannot get access to humanitarian aid; and that increasingly is becoming beyond the humanitarian crisis problem for the international community to be able to contend to what they can actually do with that.”

Recent comments and
Observations In the press
Eyad Abu Shakra compared the Syrian crisis with the Palestinian Crisis in his comments, “Role of Assad Clan in Syria”. He said, “The unfolding Syrian crisis is now looking more and more like a carbon copy of the Palestinian crisis. Almost all the ‘constants’ of world powers toward the near east in the aftermath of the First World War remain unchanged. We are still living the same religious, cultural, interest-based considerations that led to the partitioning and apportionment of the near eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire under the Sykes-Picot Agreement around 100 years ago. Indeed, one of the parties to the agreement, Sir Mark Sykes, was not far from the close circle behind the ‘Balfour Declaration’.”

“The current Syrian uprising, just like the early Palestinian uprisings of the first few decades of the 20th century, started as a spontaneous popular uprising calling for freedom, dignity and the right to self-determination. However, it soon discovered it was being surrounded by the “game of nations” that has no respect for people and no regard for human rights. Gradually, thereafter, the picture was getting ever clearer in parallel with emerging disparity between the fighting forces on the ground. The regional role of the Assad clan’s regime has been clear for all to see; it began even before Hafez Assad officially took over the leadership of Syria in late 1970,” he mentioned. (Arab News, 29 January, 2016)

London Donor Conference
Next week, on 4th of February, there will be London Donor Conference convened by the UK, Norway and Germany. Here the countries will pledge about their donations. And then there is Geneva talks.

Geneva Talks
Nearly five years since the Syrian crisis erupted, the initiative is with Russia and Iran, rather than the US, Britain, France and the Gulf states, which first called for Assad to step down in the summer of 2011. It is reported, “Last Saturday, when Kerry met the opposition negotiations committee in Riyadh, he is said to have told them bluntly that they were not a viable alternative to Assad and would have to accept proposals emanating from Moscow and Tehran, including Assad’s right to stand for re-election, or lose Washington’s support. The US complained afterwards of “wilful mischaracterisations” of what had transpired. Assad’s future had to be decided “by mutual consent”, it recalled.”

It is also reported, “Riyad Hijab, who defected while serving as Syrian Prime Minister and now heads the opposition negotiations committee, had a tense meeting with US Secretary of State Kerry and faced pressure to turn up in Geneva. Armed groups already oppose talks by exiled political leaders they think have spent too long in luxury hotels far from the frontlines.” (Ian Black, Guardian, 29 January, 2016)

US was concerned with ISIL and Europe is concerned with refugees. Syrian oppositions want halt to Russian air strikes and sieges to end. UN envoy’s first priority was to broad ceasefire and stopping ISIS.( It is reported in Al-Jazeera)

It is reported in the press about the future outcome of the Geneva Talks: “US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has intensified his efforts in recent days to hold the promised Geneva conference, is trying to attain concessions that eventually — and following a long journey of negotiations — will lead to a political solution to the Syrian tragedy. This is a noble task, but insisting on marginalizing the real nationalistic Syrian opposition and accepting that Bashar Assad stay as president will only yield failure, even if a preliminary agreement is signed in the upcoming negotiations,” observed by AbdulRahman Al-Rasheed
He also said, “No solution can be accepted if Gulf countries and Turkey do not support it, as they are the only ones that most Syrians trust because these countries have stood by them since the start of their ordeal. Therefore, the key to the solution is in the Gulf and in Turkey, not in Geneva. It does not make sense for these countries to sign and defend a deal that keeps Assad in power. Most of the Arab world will reject this because it considers him the worst criminal the region has known. Gulf States know it is suicide to leave Syria to the Iranian regime, which is expanding in their region like cancer. (AbdulRahman Al-Rasheed, Arab News, 28 January, 2016).

Observing on the Geneva talks, David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee said, “On Wednesday, David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, told an audience at Chatham House that divisions in the UN Security Council between the regime’s backers and those of the opposition have acted as a ‘ball and chain’ around the leg of the humanitarian community. It is a ‘tragedy that the humanitarian track and the political track on Syria have been so divorced,’ he added.  The prospects for aligning the two tracks remain bleak.”

Refugees and humanitarian crisis
According to the UNHCR there are more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees, including 2.5 million in Turkey, just over a million in Lebanon and 635,000 in Jordan. But these figures do not account for unregistered refugees. In Turkey only 9% of the refugee population is in camps. A quarter of a million are working illegally, most receiving less than the minimum wage.” (Reported by Patrick Wintour, Guardian, 29 January 2016)

It is reported in Al-Jazeera Insight programme, vast majority of people, 4 million, are in the neighbouring countries. In the first week of January 2016, UNHCR has UNHCR winter plan. “Egypt has 123,000 refugees; 48,000 people receiving $28 per person. More than 600,000 refugees are sheltering in Jordan. UNHCR are supporting 229,000 and in Lebanon, more than 1 million refugees in Sub-Standard Shelters under the UNHCR winter plan.

Now refugees are going to Europe. Germany is now taking the lead for Europe. It has taken 1.1 million refugees just last year. In 2015, over 800,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by sea. At least 3,800 people drowned in Mediterranean last year.

It is also reported that Germany, Denmark and Sweden say European border control is necessary. Europe has only relocated 0.17% of the Asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. Sweden and Denmark have introduced new identity checks at borders.
(I think this section, Refugees and Humanitarian Crisis needs in-depth research. I hope to cover this section separately in my next contribution)

Sum up
I would like to sum up this write up with a quotation from Guardian, London.
There can be no more urgent matter than putting an end to the terrible human tragedy and the lethal regional destabilisation produced by the Syrian conflict. This is a war in which 300,000 people have died, which has internally displaced half the country’s population and which has caused more than 4 million to flee the country altogether. Syria has become the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time. The plight of its people is also dangerously destabilising Europe and exposing weaknesses in its institutions. If the humanitarian crisis were not enough on its own, then the need to resolve Europe’s refugee crisis at its source would be reason enough to pay close attention to the peace talks that are scheduled to begin on Friday in Geneva. Yet even getting everyone round the table is looking fraught. (Ian Black, Guardian, 29 January, 2016)

[Prepared on 2 February 2016]

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