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Syria rebellion aim of ‘peaceful, gradual reform’ outlives its military defeat

By Arnab Neil Sengupta 18/3/2019
In this 2011 file photo, Syrian protesters demand civil liberties and a stop to terrorist attacks. File photo: AFP
In this 2011 file photo, Syrian protesters demand civil liberties and a stop to terrorist attacks. File photo: AFP
Eight years since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began, the cities and countryside of Syria are drenched in the blood of rebels, government troops, and innocent civilians, not to mention jihadists drawn to fight the secularist autocrat. Yet no side can claim victory – only defeat writ large. 

The world did not stand by the rebels during the battles for Daraa and Aleppo. Nor did it during the sieges of Homs and Eastern Ghouta. By contrast, Assad’s allies from Tehran to Moscow stood steadfastly by his side until they had turned the tide of the war in his favor.

The failure of the uprising will not silence the calls of oppressed or marginalized peoples in other countries from demanding their political rights, dignity, and economic opportunity. But it is undoubtedly a cautionary tale for those who overestimate the international community’s commitment to the values of solidarity, humanity, and justice.

Those Syrians who dreamed of building a democratic society founded on equal rights, freedom of expression, and rule of law have realized the only thing necessary for the triumph of totalitarianism is for good people to do nothing but watch from a safe distance.

To be fair, many Western and Arab countries closed ranks to isolate the Damascus regime and create in February 2012 a “Friends of the Syrian People” group to lend moral and diplomatic support to the opposition. And, for a long time afterwards, it did seem the regime’s days were numbered, with a transition government in exile ready to take up the reins of power when the time was ripe.

But in the end, the Syrian revolution came undone thanks to the timidity of the West, led by a Democratic administration in Washington convinced of America’s global decline and fixated on “prosperity at home”. 

That being said, it would be premature for any side of the Syrian conflict to declare victory given that roughly one-quarter of Syrian territory is governed by the political wing of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and an entire province, Idlib, is under the control of jihadists and armed Islamist groups.

The fate of the Kurdish-administered swathe of northeastern Syria is in the balance due to a lack of clarity in the Trump administration’s stand on the US military contingent deployed there. As of now Idlib is safe, as it were, from President Bashar al-Assad’s grand design of unifying the country, with his Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies locked in a tense battle of wills with Turkey.

A US soldier sits in an armoured vehicle in Manbij. File photo: Hussein Malla / AP

Against this backdrop, the success of the SDF in simultaneously uprooting the Islamic State (ISIS) group from its final strongholds and holding off on a deal with Damascus offers Syria’s moderate opposition a valuable lesson.

Although the injection of political Islam into the campaign was perhaps not a deliberate decision by any party, regime officials were quick to use the presence of Islamist and jihadist groups as a cudgel to attack the entire opposition and to portray themselves as secular defenders of religious pluralism. 

The same tactic would not have succeeded in undermining international support for the SDF, even though it includes Arab volunteers opposed to the Assad regime.

Also to their credit, the Kurds of Syria have kept channels of communication open with the Russians, who have proved pivotal to the survival of Assad’s regime and unwittingly ensured the Syrian leader did not fall totally under the sway of Tehran and its proxies.

Reaching out to the Russian leadership during the civil uprising phase of the conflict demanded a serious effort on the part of Syrian opposition, although there was no guarantee that an overture of this kind would have been reciprocated.

In any case, there is no denying Russian President Vladimir Putin has been to Assad what the West has not been to either the Syrian rebels or the SDF – a partner who can be trusted to see the job through to the bitter end. 

In the process, Putin has also succeeded in sowing divisions in the Western camp and posed a strong challenge to America’s democratic ideals and alliances in the Middle East. But that’s another story.

Admittedly, the sacrifices made by the Kurds of Syria and Iraq in the fight to defeat ISIS are a major reason why they command the respect and admiration of Western foreign policy and national security establishment. Without an indispensable partner like the Kurds, the anti-ISIS coalition might have been forced to rely on indiscriminate Russian-style air attacks to defeat the jihadists when they were occupying large expanses of northeastern Syria. 

However, as senior Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed found on a recent tour of Western capitals, networking with influential figures could potentially yield far greater dividends for the Syrian opposition than pinning their faith on the world’s moral compass or the whims of selfish authoritarian rulers.

SDC co-chair Ilham Ahmed delivers remarks on the situation in northeastern Syria in the British Parliament, London, England, February 20, 2019. Photo: Ali Haydar / Kurdish Progress

Those who participated in the spontaneous protests that erupted in 2011 against the Assad regime bear no responsibility for the tragedy that befell the Syrian nation. But with civilians making up the largest portion of the almost half a million war casualties and roughly 14 million people requiring humanitarian assistance, the Syrian opposition leaders who saw the revolution’s success as a foregone conclusion – and gave their Kurdish compatriots a wide berth to boot – should be much wiser and more humble now.

It was October 2005 when more than 250 Syrians, including secular, religious, Arab, and Kurdish opposition figures signed the Damascus Declaration denouncing “the stifling isolation which the regime has brought upon the country” and called for “peaceful, gradual” reform “founded on accord, and based on dialogue and recognition of the other”. 

Those goals are still worthy of pursuit by an opposition leadership that is not demoralized by military defeat but motivated by a coherent, unsentimental strategy for victory.

Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


Friend of Rojava | 18/3/2019
Rojava, new homeland for progressive freedom-loving people of Mid-Eas. Make it so.
Mike | 19/3/2019
Sorry, but I can't understand why it's always supposed to be the West who should intervene everywhere. Let's face it, if the USA are intervening somehwere, they get critized; but if they are not intervening, they ALSO get critized! I was also in support of the uprising, but I miss the pressure and support from Arab countries to have Assad at least implement some reforms. And what about all the Emirates, Oman, Kuwait etc., why do they not accept and support refugees and give them shelter in their countries? It seems it is always supposed to be the West that should accept refugees, I think it is easy to blame the West for the failure without putting the Arab countries to responsibility. And for Russia and Iran it was easier to take a side because Assad was just one party, where for the West and Arabs there were so many different groups - often undermined by extremists - to be approached. I hope there will still be something good coming out of this whole conflict, and I agree that the whole international community must put pressure on Assad to at least see through some reforms. But honestly, I have not too much hope with the powerful nations being opposed on how to treat Assad...
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