~ Time Now for a Different Strategy to Avoid a New Thirty Years War ?
~ “All the mothers in the world
hide their wombs, and tremble
And they wish only they could retreat
into blind unseeing virginities,
to solitary beginnings
and a past with no inheritance.
Pale, as if caught unawares,
virginity stands unguarded.
The sea moans of thirst, and
The land moans a thirst to be like water.”
~ Miguel Hernández, 1939
~ “Though they are now largely silent, the voices from the seventeenth century still speak to us from the innumerable texts and images we are fortunate to possess. They offer a warning of the dangers of entrusting power to those who feel summoned by God to war, or feel that their sense of justice and order is the only one valid. The Thirty Years War claimed eight million lives and transformed the religious and social map of Europe. For most Germans, the war came to symbolize national humiliation, retarding political, economic and social development, and condemning their country to two centuries of internal division and international impotence.” ~ Peter H. Wilson, 2009
~ “How miserable is now the state of the large cities! Where in former times there were a thousand lanes, today there are no more than a hundred. How wretched is the state of the small and open market towns! There they lie, burnt, decayed, destroyed, so that you see neither roofs nor rafters, doors or windows. Oh God, how pitiable is the state of the villages …! You travel ten, twenty or forty miles without seeing a single human being, no livestock, not one sparrow, if there are not some few places where you find one or two old men or women or a child”, Joachim Betke, 1668
~ “It is important that the world know that these killings in Rwanda were not spontaneous or accidental. It is important that the world hear they were most certainly not the result of ancient tribal struggles. Indeed, these people had lived together for centuries before the events to unfold.They grew from a policy aimed at the systematic destruction of a people. The international community must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We owe to all the peoples of the world who are at risk because each bloodletting hastens the next as the value of human life is degraded and violence becomes tolerated, the unimaginable becomes more conceivable. We owe to all the people in the world our best efforts to organize ourselves so that we can maximize the chances of preventing these events. And where they cannot be prevented, we can move more quickly to minimize the horror.” ~ U.S. President Bill Clinton, 1998
~ “The economy of violence flourished in 2014 as battles intensified, with reallocation of resources and capital to the machinery of war. This was accompanied with the expansion of black markets, the erosion of sovereignty and rule of law, increasing dependence upon external support, deepening economic exposure and loss of economic security. Under the conflict, the Syrian economy suffers from the dominance of the subjugating powers working to institutionalize control through violence. As sovereignty has weakened conflict-related transnational networks and criminal gangs emerged to engage in human trafficking and abuse, pillage, smuggling, kidnapping and extortion, recruiting combatants and trading in the objects of national and historical heritage. The future growth of the Syrian economy has been compromised by the systematic collapse and destruction of its economic foundations as its infrastructure and institutions, human and physical capital, as well as the wealth of the nation, have been obliterated. The ruinous descent into poverty in Syria continued in 2014 when just over four in every five Syrians lived in poverty. Almost two thirds of the population lived in extreme poverty, unableto secure the basic food and non-food items necessary for the survival of the household. ~ United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), March 2015
~ “On Friday 13 November, that day we’ll never forget, France was gravely attacked, in an act of war organized from afar and coldly executed. A horde of murderers killed 130 of our people and wounded hundreds, in the name of a mad cause and a god betrayed. So I simply want to say these words: France will stand by you. To all of you, I solemnly promise that France will do everything to destroy the army of fanatics who committed these crimes, that it will act without respite to protect its children.” ~ President François Hollande, November, 2015
A few days after the terrible multiple terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday November 13 that claimed one hundred thirty lives, over lunch with friends, we happened to look through photos from their holiday to Syria in 2009, two years before the start of the calamitous civil war raging there now in its fifth year. The photos showed thriving markets, beautiful historic cities (Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus) full of produce and smiling friendly people. Since then, of course, much of those ancient places have been bombed and destroyed. Over a million people have been killed or seriously wounded. Over half Syria’s 22 million pre-war population has been displaced as refugees, over four million of those have fled abroad mainly to neighboring countries (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq). And, as we know, of late faced with a precipitous shortfall in international food and shelter aid there, tens of thousands have now migrated – or tried to – into the European Union (EU).
The scale of the destruction in Syria since 2011 has been so vast as to make recent most tragic events in Paris seem very small indeed by comparison. As the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA) reported earlier this year (see above quote), the Syrian economy has shrunk to one-third of its former size, two thirds of its infrastructure and economic capital have been destroyed, life expectancy has dropped from 75 years to 55 years! Poverty now affects over eighty percent of its population, and abject poverty bordering on starvation affects over sixty percent! Over fifty percent of children no longer attend school!
In many respects, the Syrian conflict has come to resemble another terrible war that raged across Europe for decades in the seventeenth century – the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Just as in Syria now, back then events involving a protest and small revolt of a few Protestant citizens in Bohemia, rapidly escalated into an all-out war, progressively drawing in all surrounding nations – including Sweden, Italy, France, Denmark, even Spain – as well as a myriad of German and other principalities. As that war raged on, patterns of multiple alliances emerged, with each group trying to maximize its own interest, while avoiding conflict with its partners. This, together with the emergence of large armies of mercenaries that switched sides, made it all but impossible to resolve and end the conflict. As it ground on for three decades, the Thirty Years War killed over eight million Europeans – mainly in what is now Germany. It redrew the social and religious map of Europe, just as it destroyed much of its economy and infrastructure, as contemporary eyewitness Joachim Bletke, and modern historian Peter Wilson have documented so graphically (see above quotes).
If anything, the rate of destruction has been far deadlier and quicker in Syria than during Europe’s Thirty Years War. This is likely because of the far greater savage lethality of modern weaponry, especially aerial bombardment and artillery used mainly by the forces of the Assad government, now recently supplemented by the intervention of Russia.
It is only in this context that the rise to power of ISIS – the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – can be understood. ISIS was beneficiary of the almost simultaneous collapse of government administrations in both northern Iraq and northern Syria starting in 2010. Yet ISIS by itself was not the only or prime cause or instigator of that collapse. Rather it took advantage of a vacuum of power that had emerged. And for all its undoubted savagery and its willingness now to carry out multiple terrorist attacks elsewhere in the Middle East (Egypt, Lebanon) and in Europe (Paris), it is but one player – and a smaller regional one – in the broader regional conflict whose epicenter is in Syria.
This makes the West’s – and now especially France’s – obsession with only focusing on fighting ISIS quite difficult to understand strategically. For absent resolution of the Syrian conflict – which today seems as far from over as ever! – non-state actors like ISIS – or its successors – are likely to thrive. That particularly in isolated, little populated, ungoverned areas like northern Syria and northern Iraq today.
Key Questions : So, what is the current political and military situation – state-of-play – in Syria today? And what is ISIS’ role and importance in that? What are the broader dimensions to the conflict beyond the narrowly focused “coalition against ISIS’ led by the U.S.A.? And why is it, despite the bellicose rhetoric for almost two years, that coalition has been so ineffective in displacing and rooting out ISIS? What are the deeper risks of a broader long-term regional conflict along the lines of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War? Are there alternative strategies that could hasten a broader peace that would also spell the end of fanatic rebel groups such as ISIS?
State-of-Play in Syria : Since 2012, central government authority in Syria has collapsed. In its place, half a dozen of more different groups and alliances hold power – sometimes precariously – in different regions and localities. These include the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, that, for all its dominance in lethal modern weaponry (air force, army, etc.), is now limited to a small and diminishing strip along the coast and the border with Lebanon, which it controls with help from Hezbollah – the Shia militia group supported by Iran – and from Russia, which now has also placed combat aircraft in a base at Latakia.
It also includes a large number (over a dozen) different Syrian rebel groups fighting the Assad regime. These range from the moderate and secular Free Syrian Army, to the extreme ‘jihadi’ religious groups – including Al Qaeda as well as those supported by Saudi Arabia and the gulf states. It also includes Kurdish groups and militias – active across the borders with Iraq and Turkey. As with Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, as the Syrian conflict has dragged on, it has also become a proxy war, drawing in regional and international powers. All these are supplying weapons, money, fighters, to different groups they support.
In this context, ISIS is but one player – albeit well-financed from illicit oil trade, extortion, kidnapping and smuggling, and well-armed with U.S. weapons earlier seized from the Iraqi army. But ISIS is limited to a vast remote area straddling northern Syria and northern Iraq, but stretching down into Anbar as far as Mosul. Its control of empty territory is far greater than its control of population.
On the ground, amid the appalling carnage and destruction, the many different armed groups are vying for control in a fragmented fashion across most of Syria, quite often spilling over into neighboring countries – notably Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq. These groups also engage in criminal activity, switch sides, fight each other, have shifting allegiances – just as was the case in Europe’s Thirty Years’ War so long ago. In short, the collapse of sovereignty and rule of law has fueled a descent into near chaos.
Coalition Fighting ISIS is Weak and Divided: In an attempt to avoid direct military involvement in Syria’s civil war, after the disastrous Iraq War, the U.S.A. and other Western powers opted for limited, indirect support to certain identified as “moderate” opposition groups fighting the Assad regime. Only when ISIS very graphically kidnapped and beheaded several Westerners including reporters were they stung into more direct action. The coalition against ISIS was formed in late 2014 by the USA under President Obama’s leadership for this purpose. The aim has been to eradicate ISIS and its “fanatical ideology”.
The coalition, however, brings together some unlikely bedfellows as erstwhile allies. On the one hand, there are the European powers and Canada. On the other, at least nominally, there are a number of Sunni Arab Middle East states, including Egypt, Jordan, but also the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia. For these Sunni states, fighting ISIS is a far lower priority than removal of Assad, their goal being to prevent a total Shia dominance from Tehran to the Mediterranean linking Iran and Iraq with Syria under Assad’s Shia control. Moreover, ISIS represents an extreme Sunni (Wahhabi) militia that cuts a wedge geographically between Iraq and Syria
and counts many Saudis and other Sunnis as fighters in its midst. Significantly, they have therefore run no bombing sorties against ISIS, while they have mercilessly bombed the Houthis in Yemen, who are also Shia.
As a result of its internal divisions and limited military activity, the coalition against ISIS has been little more than a holding operation. It has whittled away at ISIS positions but so far been unable to defeat it or dislodge it. Into this mix have now come Russia – purportedly willing to take the fight to ISIS, but more interested geopolitically in propping up the foundering Assad regime – and the French stung into more aggressive action by the recent Paris terror attacks.
Medium and Long Term Risks – A Spreading Deepening Conflict Out of Control : As with Europe’s appallingly tragic Thirty Years’ War, the unwillingness and/or inability of any of the major actors and alliances to see the primary importance of ending the larger conflict risks not only the deepening (if that is possible!) as well as the geographic spreading of the Syrian conflict. Already there are huge populations of Syrian refugees permanently displaced in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Alternative Strategies? : Thus far, the strategies and actions of all the major actors, including the Western powers, have predominantly involved intensifying the use of military force, either directly (e.g., through stepped up Western bombing of ISIS) or through varying levels of clandestine indirect support for different rebel groups inside Syria. Where Iran has been providing such support to Shia groups inside Syria – in part out of long-standing religious affiliation and loyalties – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and other Sunni powers have done likewise for Sunni groups. Western powers have been allied more with the Sunni, and Russia with the Assad regime and thus with Iran and the Shia.
In face of the utterly mind-bogglingly appalling humanitarian disaster that is Syria today, far less has been done by any of the powers to emulate the lesson President Bill Clinton too belatedly drew four years later from the 1994 Rwanda genocide of the Tutsis. In a universally publicized speech in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, in 1998, Clinton said (see above quote) that the international community had an obligation to prevent such horrendous violence against mass civlian populations, or to do all in its power to end it once started.
Conclusion : It is not too late for all the major powers involved – notably including the Western powers led by the USA, who profess adherence to human rights and freedoms for all – to move away from military dominated short-term and limited partial approaches. Instead they could opt for a directly humanitarian strategy. This should aim at making protecting and supporting civilians in Syria the top priority objective, for as long as it takes and in preparation for a time when Syrians can freely determine the future and leadership of their own society.
For s start this could include : creation of protective (not military aggressive) no-fly zones across north and south Syria as safe havens from conflict for millions of beleaguered Syrian civilians. It should also include a massive increase in funding for the United Nations Food Aid program for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, which has recently been allowed to run out of money! Rather than indulging in headline grabbing distractions by attacking only ISIS and doing so ineffectively, efforts would be far better spent on finding a broader political solution to the conflict sooner rather than later. The world can little afford another Thirty Years’ War raging for decades aross the entire Middle East!
I, for one, hope that our political leaders will rise to this challenge to bring this appalling human tragedy in Syria to an end! If they do so, the lives so tragically lost in Paris, Sharm-el-Sheikh, and Beirut recently will not have been in vain!