By: Nina Anggala
Three million lives hang in the balance. These are the residents of Idlib, a region in the northwest of Syria and the last stronghold of her major rebel forces.
Between them and a devastating attack stands a tentative demilitarization deal signed by the government, its foreign allies, and occupying jihadist groups. If the rebels don’t withdraw by mid-October, the deal stipulates the launch of a full-scale assault. On the horizon: the Russian navy, the Syrian military, and standing guard against the latter, Turkish forces, all reminders of the consequences of disobedience.
If this comes to pass, it will paint our headlines red, a humanitarian catastrophe in an already catastrophic war. Of the three million people in Idlib, one million are children and more than half are seeking refuge from other parts of the country. Eleven million Syrians have been displaced. The death toll continues to rise, even with this temporary peace. If this comes to pass, those who are left will live under President Bashar al-Assad’s thumb, revolutionaries of a failed revolution.
When the red fades, the war will be over for us.
There is a perception of the Middle East that people hold, often unwittingly, of an inherently violent place; by virtue of the people who live there, the religion they practice, and the governments who reign. Advocates of anti-immigration policies monger fear of an infection. If these people step foot on Western soil, they cry, they will bring with them the bloodshed that permeates their homes like a plague.
But when you look closer, a different picture emerges: one of crime, perpetrated by corrupt governments, foreign and national, against the citizens of the Middle East. For Syria, it was the imprisonment and torture of 23 teenaged boys for their involvement in a piece of pro-Arab Spring graffiti. On a larger scale, it was the invasion of Iraq by the United States and the UK in the Second Persian Gulf War.
The headlines around that are long gone, but for the Iraqi people, as it will be for Syria, their troubles aren’t over.
The war in Syria is only a civil war in the strictest sense of the word. In everything but name, the Syrian conflict is essentially a proxy war; Syria is the Colosseum and its citizens are gladiators, enlisted by foreign powers to fight in a melee of foreign policies and power dynamics.
Michael Ledeen, American historian and neoconservative foreign policy analyst, once wrote of the Iraq War, “this war is not new in any meaningful sense. Indeed it is a very traditional sort of war, one at which the U.S. has always excelled: It is a war against tyrants and in the name of freedom.”
“Our greatest weapon in this war,” he writes, “is the people oppressed by tyrannical regimes. They constitute a lethal dagger aimed at the hearts of their rulers. And knowing this, the tyrants fear us.”
On June of 2007, the Bush administration revealed their plans to maintain a strong American presence in Iraq. By 2009, the US had built 283 bases in Iraq, the largest of which (and of any US embassy in the world) is located in Baghdad. Comparable to the Vatican City in size, the mammoth embassy looms over the Iraqi capital.
The building of these permanent bases was a potent source of controversy in America even in the midst of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”.
There was no such controversy in Iraq and her neighbours.
It was clear to the Iraqis that the US was attempting to establish itself as a colonial power in the region. Tehran and Damascus were next.
Today, Iran stands behind President Assad, alongside the Russians. The rebels, an umbrella term that denotes the diverse and largely disorganized groups fighting against President Assad, are backed by the US and Turkey, whose borders run across the region of Idlib. For once, in the last decade or so of war, it seems that the US is finally on the right side of history.
Except there are no winners or losers on the ground. Whether US-led or Russian-financed, indiscriminate war tactics kill civilians; their grief is written off as collateral damage.
When the Free Syrian Army first rose up in Daraa, following President Assad’s orders that the army use violent means to quell protests, they represented the hopes and the sorrows of the Syrian people. Hundreds died or were imprisoned in those protests. Inspired by the Arab Spring’s success in Egypt and inflamed by the torture of the Graffiti Kids, they were the culmination of years of festering resentment against a corrupt, oppressive government.
When the US was given the opportunity to provide early, critical support for the Free Syrian Army, they backed out. They were cowed by the disastrous effects of their occupation of Iraq. They wanted to minimize their presence in the Middle East. They wanted a free Arab world. In Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, he said, “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis … that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”
Since then, the Free Syrian Army has disintegrated. What was once the strongest hope of the Syrian people and a formidable, secular, force has given way to a fragmented mess of power struggles and extremism. When the Americans assassinated Saddam, they left behind a vacuum of power that allowed al-Qaeda to rise to prominence. Today, the dominant rebel organization in Idlib is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham: a radical, Salafist militant group with roots in al-Qaeda.
The inflation of sectarianism in Islamist countries has long been a prominent strategy in the American arsenal. After dismantling Saddam’s government, which was controlled by the Ba’ath Party, a historically Sunni group, the Bush administration made sure to appoint Shiite officials as replacements for those who worked under Hussein, regardless of their personal ideologies and feelings towards the dictator. The exacerbation of sectarian hostility prompted nationwide fear of persecution, a fear Osama bin Laden would later weaponize when he unveiled himself as a protector of the Sunni people. Prior to that, both Sunni and Shi’a officials walked the halls of Iraq’s government.
These officials also had close ties to Iran and the result of their appointments was the beginning of a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The latter currently provides weapons and munitions to rebel groups.
But who provides for the people?
Three million people are threatened not only by an impending doom, but by the uncertainty of day-to-day survival. Water, food, healthcare, electricity – all are scarce in Idlib, a city built to sustain a population half of that which resides in it now.
Since the beginning of the war, it has been a favourite strategy of President Assad’s to target hospitals. Water and electricity are only provided in government controlled regions of Syria. The temptation to run to those places is tempered only by the fear that should they seek asylum elsewhere, residents of Idlib will be branded as traitors by the government and their families imprisoned or killed.
Anywhere they run, their safety is threatened.
For many of those who escaped abroad, the vilification of Islam during the Iraq war, built on an existing hotbed of xenophobia, is yet another barrier to safety and security.
If you take an even closer look at the Syrian conflict, what you find isn’t a political drama about the machinations of Western powers. December, 2010: Mohamed Bouazizi, 26 years old, set himself on fire in front of a government building in Tunisia. January, 2011: Esraa Abdel Fattah, 40 years old, organized the protest in Tahrir Square in Egypt. And on February 16, 2011, Naief Abazid, then only 14 years old, painted the words “It’s your turn Doctor Bashar al-Assad” on the wall of his school in a region of southern Syria: Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution.
The history of the Arab world is distinguished by its tragedy and by the strength of its hope. Whatever the outcome of the Battle for Idlib, whether it is the final act to this war or not, it will not be the end of that story.