Syria: The Great Power Chessboard Messed Up More Than Ever

Petras Gagilas via flickr || Creative Commons

Syrian civil war is ongoing since 2011, but the end of this bloodshed seems to be still far-fetched. On the contrary, the indirect confrontation between Russia and the U.S. on this field seems to grow in tensions in a way that could sometimes remind us of the cold-war period. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the documented casualties of the war are more than 301,000, but the Britain-Based Observatory says that the effective death toll since 2011 could have reached more than 430,000.

Russia is increasing its support (not only an advisory one, but especially a strong military backing), trying to convince everyone that it’s all for the fight against terrorism, Daesh, but it’s evident that the main purpose is to defend Assad’s regime and to make it again stable and strong as it once was.

To be honest, this is quite unlikely to happen. After a cruel and violent civil war like that, carried out following an attempted revolution and rebellion against the tyrant who ruled the country, how can it be fixed in a way that the population can accept, even with the use of brutal force to coerce them to submit to the central authority, the total restoration of Assad? After he attacked his own population with gas and chemical weapons, how can we just get over it and restore his power?

Of course, the war wasn’t the first time that chemical weapons were used against Syrian citizens: In 1982, President Hafez Al-Assad, the father of the current president, used poison gas to cut off a rebellion occurring in the city of Hama, killing thousands of civilians in a veritable massacre. One can wonder how can someone keep his power over a country after an episode like that. What is certain is that that the event enabled Bashar Al-Assad’s father to maintain the power at the time, erasing the roots of an attempted rebellion against its ruling over Syria.

However, after a civil war like the current one in the Middle-Eastern country, fought by the government forces with ferocious strength and brutality (including using chemicals against its own citizens in a desperate attempt to maintain the power), how can it be possible to cancel all this and go on with the same ruler – the ruler who allowed for all these deaths? This would mean that after almost six years of war and thousands of thousands of deaths, nothing has changed at all.

What is also true and necessary, though, is that the huge mistakes that were made in Iraq and Libya cannot happen again. The West should have learnt that using these questionable methods to fulfill their interests is terribly dangerous and that, in the long-term, all this leads to huge problems as those that we (especially Europe) are facing today. The spread of terrorism in European countries and the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II are two clear indicators that remind us of our failures in the adopted policies in the Middle East.

It’s all nice and beautiful to promote democracy, freedom, the end of tyranny and suffering for all the world’s people, but we cannot just mess up a country, topple the bad dictator, stick in the flag of democracy and then withdraw, leaving the country alone to deal with the problems to which we have significantly contributed. This clearly doesn’t work. Moreover, promoting the maintenance of a brutal ruler such as Assad would be a mistake.

Escalation after the Failed Ceasefire

The tensions between Russia and the U.S. Have been dangerously escalating in the last weeks. Since the failure of the agreed ceasefire, there have been a series of accusations and counter-accusations, accompanied by worrying actions, which are clear signals that the war in Syria will go on and we will not come to any solution anytime soon.

The ceasefire negotiated by Russia and the United States, confirmed by Damascus and the main rebel groups, came into force on September 12, with the aim of temporary halting the conflict on the Syrian territory in order to allow humanitarian aids to enter the country. The groups such as Daesh and Jabhat fateh al Sham (the new name of Al Nusra militia) have been excluded from the truce, since they are considered terrorist organizations.

However, on September 17, a US bombing caused about 60 deaths among the Syrian army. Two days later, on September 19, the Syrian army declared the end of the truce, accusing the rebels of not respecting it. Moreover, a humanitarian aid convoy has been struck near Aleppo, and the U.S. accused Russia of the 20 casualties reported following this event. These are the facts that show the failure of the truce.

All hopes and expectations toward a new phase of the civil conflict, which could lead to the cooperation of the big powers in order to end the war, failed miserably, and that is even more undeniable after the U.S. suspension of the talks with Russia on the Syrian ceasefire. This decision threatens to throw the prolonged war into a new precarious and uncertain direction. As a confirmation of the end of the talks, the U.S. withdrew its team from Geneva, which was there to work with a similar group of Russians. Russia, on the other hand, accuses Washington of bringing about the failure of the ceasefire, not controlling the rebel groups, and not easing the flow of humanitarian aid for the civil population.

Moreover, on October 3, Vladimir Putin announced the suspension of the 16 years old US-Russia deal on plutonium, the aim of which was to reduce some of Russian and US stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. Putin justified this move because of the “unfriendly” actions of the U.S. toward the Russian Federation – among them, the inflicted sanctions following the start of the Ukrainian crisis.

Another clear sign of the rise of tensions between Russia and the U.S. (and the West in general) is the failure of passing by the United Nations Security Council of the two competing resolutions aimed at stopping the violence in eastern Aleppo – one sponsored by France, the other by the Russian Federation. The former resolution, calling for the immediate end of airstrikes and military conflict in Aleppo and for a truce permitting humanitarian aid to access the region, failed because it was vetoed by Russia – a permanent member whose negative vote means that a resolution cannot be adopted, even if all other fourteen members voted positively (this time China didn’t side with Russia, but decided to abstain instead). The latter, the Russian-sponsored document, calling for a ceasefire without mentioning the end of bombings, failed because it didn’t reach the majority of votes (the veto of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States would have stopped the passing of the resolution anyway). The UN Special Envoy for Syria, De Mistura, called for an urgent action in the conflict, otherwise thousands of civilians will be killed and cities like Aleppo could be destroyed by the end of the year, according to the reports of the UN News Service.

It is crystal-clear that Syria is just a pawn in the big power’s game, and that this war is going on for years because of the intervention and the intrusion of several external actors that kept messing the situation up time and again. It is also clear that without the cooperation and some sort of agreement between Russia and the US, the situation will be stuck as it is today, or will get even worse, if the two powers continue to stubbornly pursue their own agendas without trying to reach a compromise with one another.

Terrorism and the huge flow of refugees will not stop if the conflict goes on, because hatred toward hostile foreign powers will grow in the Middle East as we continue to intrude in their affairs, politics, and in their every-day life. Meanhile, people will continue to run away from the horrors of the war, in order to seek a better chance for their families and children.

Gloria Leccese
Liberalni Institute