Failed Syr­ian cease­fire

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Najmuddin A Shaikh

DE­SPITE the bit­ter­ness of the con­flict that has raged in Syria for the last 19 months many of us had en­ter­tained the hope that the war­ring par­ties would hon­our UN en­voy Lakhdar Brahimi’s painfully ne­go­ti­ated cease­fire. Af­ter all, it was to cover only the four-day Eidul Azha hol­i­day.

It did not ap­pear to be de­signed to of­fer ei­ther side an un­fair op­por­tu­nity to re­group or to re­plen­ish sup­plies. All it could do was give the be­lea­guered Syr­ian peo­ple a respite from the un­remit­ting shelling, bomb­ing and IEDs caus­ing an av­er­age of 150 ca­su­al­ties per day. It had the back­ing of Tur­key and Iran, the two re­gional states that were the prin­ci­pal source of sup­port for the in­sur­gents and the gov­ern­ment re­spec­tively.

These hopes were be­lied. The gov­ern­ment claimed that they broke the cease­fire agree­ment only af­ter their forces were at­tacked or af­ter in­sur­gents planted IEDs.

The first ma­jor in­ci­dent was the ex­plo­sion of a car bomb in a res­i­den­tial area of Da­m­as­cus in which, ac­cord­ing to Syr­ian of­fi­cial me­dia, the ca­su­alty count was 15 dead civil­ians, in­clud­ing eight chil­dren, and 92 wounded, among them 65 chil­dren.

Some­what be­lat­edly, in­sur­gent forces claimed that this was en­gi­neered by the gov­ern­ment. But the gov­ern­ment’s ri­poste, if that is what it was, seemed to­tally out of place. The heav­i­est air raids of the con­flict were car­ried out in this four-day pe­riod ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, which is gen­er­ally cred­ited with hav­ing good sources within Syria and claims to be an im­par­tial ob­server of the car­nage.

UN Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon ex­pressed deep dis­ap­point­ment that the cease­fire had not held while Lakhdar Brahimi, in Moscow for talks with the Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov, said that “the Syr­ian cri­sis is very, very dan­ger­ous; the sit­u­a­tion is bad and get­ting worse”. The Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment but also re­it­er­ated the Rus­sian view that the western nations should ne­go­ti­ate a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment with the As­sad regime.

In the mean­while, the mis­eries of the Syr­ian peo­ple and the sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of their coun­try continue. The UN es­ti­mates that some 20,000 peo­ple have died so far but other pos­si­bly more re­al­is­tic fig­ures put the death toll at 35,000.

Of­fi­cially 100,000 Syr­i­ans have sought shel­ter in Tur­key but in re­al­ity the num­ber is prob­a­bly closer to 180,000 with a sim­i­lar num­ber hav­ing moved to Jor­dan. The UN es­ti­mates that by the end of the year some 700,000 Syr­i­ans would have fled the coun- try. Within Syria, the in­ter­nally dis­placed num­ber al­most two mil­lion with the UN try­ing des­per­ately to find fund­ing to pro­vide shel­ter and food.

The heavy bomb­ing and shelling to counter in­sur­gent ad­vances and the hand- to- hand com­bat in many ur­ban ar­eas has meant that much of ur­ban Syria is be­ing razed to the ground. The world her­itage site ‘Old Aleppo’ city and the fa­mous mar­ket it con­tains has re­peat­edly suf­fered shelling and is in dan­ger of be­ing wiped out as is the Umayyad mosque, an Aleppo land­mark which has fre­quently changed hands be­tween gov­ern­ment and in­sur­gent forces.

No es­ti­mates have been pub­lished yet of the to­tal dam­age done but it would be safe to say that it would take a decade or more for Syria to re­build what has been lost in the course of this con­flict.

But it is not Syria alone that is af­fected. The sec­tar­ian and eth­nic di­men­sions of the con­flict continue to ex­ac­er­bate ten­sions within the re­gion.

Tur­key, which had emerged as the re­gional pow­er­house suc­cess­fully pur­su­ing a pol­icy of ‘zero prob­lems with neigh­bours’, finds it­self at odds with Syria. Hence, it has new ten­sions in its re­la­tions with Iran and Rus­sia. These and the refugee prob­lem or even the vir­tu­ally daily ex­change of ar­tillery fire with Syria are rel­a­tively smaller prob­lems than the emer­gence of the Syr­ian Kurds as an in­de­pen­dent force in ar­eas of Syria bor­der­ing on Tur­key.

The in­ter­nal prob­lems Tur­key has with its Kur­dish mi­nor­ity have in Turk­ish eyes been ex­ac­er­bated by this de­vel­op­ment par­tic­u­larly since they see the Kur­dish Demo­cratic Union Party (PYD), the dom­i­nant Kur­dish force in Syria, as syn­ony­mous with the out­lawed Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK).

In Le­banon, Sunni sup­port­ers of the Syr­ian in­sur­gency are at odds with the Shia Hezbol­lah, the most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary force in Le­banon and which, it is al­leged, is send­ing its fight­ers into Syria to sup­port the As­sad regime. Le­banon is seen as hov­er­ing on the brink of civil war, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the killing of Wis­sam al-Has­san, the head of se­cu­rity and a staunch an­tiSyr­ian fig­ure.

In Iraq, the spate of bomb­ings on Eidul Azha is re­lated at least in part to the sit­u­a­tion in Syria. Sunni vol­un­teers are join­ing the in­sur­gency while Shia fight­ers are mak­ing their way into Syria to sup­port As­sad di­rectly and through Iran. To­day, Bibi Zaynab’s tomb in Da­m­as­cus is be­ing guarded en­tirely by Shia vol­un­teers from Iran and Iraq.

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