There Isn’t Really any Such Thing as “Syria” Anymore
After having spent much of the past month following Syrian refugees in their exodus from the Baathist killing fields of the despot Bashar Assad and then writing up the results of my travels in a four-part Ottawa Citizen series that concluded last Saturday, some sort of tidy denouement to the effort seemed in order. But the trouble with the Syrian agony is that it doesn’t end. Just when you think it can’t get worse, it does.
“The country is destroyed,” Turkish president Abdullah Gul told the British journalist Simon Tisdall last weekend. “There really isn’t in my opinion much that can be done now.”
There isn’t really any such thing as “Syria” anymore.
The latest calculations from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of Syrian dead, from the first demonstrators shot March 18, 2011 in Dara’a where the revolution began, to Oct. 30, 2013, at 120,296. The killing continues. Of Syria’s population of roughly 21 million, more than six million people are now refugees or “internally displaced persons.” United Nations humanitarian affairs head Valerie Amos told the Security Council on Monday that 9.3 million Syrians inside Syria now need the UN’s immediate help.
While I was visiting the sprawling, Moncton-sized refugee camp of Za’atari just south of the Syrian border near the town of Mafraq in Jordan’s northwest, an imam in Damascus issued a fatwa authorizing his congregants to eat dogs and cats — residents of suburban Yarmouk and Moadamiyah were starving to death.
From the Mediterranean Sea at Latakia to Anbar province in the Iraqi desert, the vast swath of the Middle East where Syria used to be is now just a patchwork of jihadist mini-emirates, regime-held enclaves, warlord fiefdoms and small pockets of democratic resistance under the control of the Free Syrian Army. This is the “worst-case scenario” we’ve been hearing about for the past two years.
It is important to remember the reasons why this particular Arab Spring phenomenon — which began as a cheerfully optimistic, largely non-violent and fervently pro-democracy uprising led mainly by teenagers — degenerated so quickly into a bloodbath of reaction, repression, counter-revolution and savagery.
It happened because the NATO countries, “led from behind” by U.S. president Barack Obama, allowed it to happen. It happened because the White House has preferred to avoid any confrontations with Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Hezbollah. This is the Obama Doctrine. It’s all about abstention and capitulation, and just one consequence is that you can’t tell anymore who holds the United States in greater contempt: the Israelis or the Saudis, the Egyptians or the Turks.
It’s not just that there is no such thing as Syria any more. The other penny that hasn’t dropped is that there is no such thing as an America that is a force for progress in the world any more, either, at least not for the moment. History’s clock has turned backwards.
The Syrian Center for Policy Research and the UN Relief Works Agency have concluded that the impact of the Syrian crisis on income, education, and health has rolled back all the usual human development indexes by about 35 years.
Damascus is beginning to look eerily like Kabul in the early 1990s, when the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai collapsed and huge tracts of Central Asia fell into the hands of jihadist crackpots, Islamist psychopaths and Al Qaida. “Afghanistan on the shores of the Mediterranean” is the way Turkish president Abdullah Gul described the bloody dystopia the Syrian landscape is becoming.
In July, the Washington Institute’s Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Zelin presented the results of several months of their research into the jihadist elements that had been sucked into the vacuum that was opening up inside Syria and concluded that about 5,000 Sunni fighters from 60 countries had entered the fray over the preceding two years.
“This makes Syria the second-largest foreign-fighter destination in the history of modern Islamism,” they wrote, the biggest jihadist-magnet having been Afghanistan all those years ago. But just when you think things couldn’t get much worse, along comes the British defence consultancy IHS Jane’s with a study, released this week that doubles the number of jihadists in Syria counted by the Washington Institute.
The IHS Jane’s study reckons that among roughly 100,000 anti-regime fighters about a third are “hard line Islamists,” and a third of those fighters are incorrigible jihadists.
But even the “moderate” Free Syrian Army secularists who are violently opposed to Al Qaida make the point that the religious overtones the revolution has taken on are understandable and largely benign. And they have a point.
“Jihad” is merely armed struggle ordained by the Muslim religion. Syrians are mostly Muslims. Betrayed and abandoned by their erstwhile friends in the western world, they are waging a lonely struggle, surrounded by death and sorrow, and they naturally turn for courage and comfort to the traditions of the faith.
Besides, just how anemic and spineless would a religion have to be if it did not contain at least some kind of doctrinal obligation to rise up against a war criminal like Bashar al Assad? Any moral claim the NATO countries might have once been able to make against the temptations of jihad — that’s gone now, too.
Syria is Gone.
Terry Glavin is a journalist and author whose most recent book is “Come from the Shadows”.
TERRY GLAVIN – OTTAWA CITIZEN
NOVEMBER 6, 2013
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