Until quite recently, there seemed to be a lull in the fighting in Syria, as the latest attempt at a ceasefire seemed to be more or less working. However, any thought that the Syrian civil war might soon be over, or entering its final phase, can be dismissed as wishful thinking, as the regime has renewed its attacks on the rebel-held section of the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. Aleppo is now the scene of vicious fighting, as the Sant’Egidio community has reminded us. Their cry, that we must save Aleppo, makes one realise that there is little of Aleppo left to save.
While one can only speculate about the winners of this disastrous conflict, and look forward to the next stage – possibly a Syria divided permanently three ways, between an Alawite/Shia state, a Sunni one and a Kurdish homeland – one may at this stage be more definite as to who has lost this war.
The prime losers are the people of Syria, most of whom may well look back to the tyranny of the Assad family in its heyday as, not a golden age by any means, but a time of peace and relative prosperity. Twenty years ago Aleppo and Damascus were pleasant cities, two of the most beautiful and interesting places on earth. The Syrian countryside was safe and full of historical treasures as well. All that is now gone. That so many have fled the country is a sure indication that they see it as a place where they can have no future. The sheer scale of human grief and suffering is hard to imagine. Added to the homes lost we must also remember the lives lost.
Then there are the political losers. Chief of these is America and her allies. Mr Obama drew a red line, and then fudged it. Essentially he gave passive permission for Mr Assad to continue. The most powerful nation on earth was made to look powerless. It is certainly arguable that Mr Obama had no clear or sensible line of action to follow on Syria, but this amounts to the same thing. While Syria was engulfed in flames, the West did not act, or could not act, or failed to act. In other words, the West was powerless; whichever way one looks at this, it is not good for the West.
The other big political loser is the United Nations. Like the League of Nations before it, it has been revealed as ineffectual. Perhaps America is not obliged to be the global policeman, but the United Nations surely is, and it has failed to stop the emergence of yet another failed state – an unwelcome addition to the already growing number of failed states in the world. Syria, thanks to the rise of ISIS, is probably the world most dangerous failed state, along with Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya … the list is a long one.
One day these failed states will have to be dealt with; the longer it is put off the harder it will be. Perhaps the measure of the West and the UN’s failure is to be seen in their fear of putting boots on the ground. It would have been costly to put boots on the ground in Syria, doubtless – but the failure to do so may be more costly in the long run.
We may ask, in the long-running Sunni versus Shia civil war, who has won in Syria? Sunni dominance looks shakier than it has done for some time, but the Shia fears of being wiped out seem to be as well-grounded as ever. Syria at best looks like a draw, or more accurately, a stalemate. This long running rivalry will no doubt soon move on to another theatre.
If both Shia and Sunni have lost, or at least not won, another clear group of losers are the various Christian communities in Syria. For them the Syria civil war is another sad milestone along the long road to extinction in the Middle East, a process that started in the earlier part of the twentieth century with the Armenian genocide, accelerated with the Lebanese civil war and the recent troubles in Egypt, and has got even worse with the civil war in Iraq. Once numerous throughout the Middle East, Christians are now a dwindling and beleaguered minority, nor is this trend likely to be reversed.
Given that there are flourishing Catholic communities of Middle Eastern origin in countries as diverse as the United States, Trinidad and Brazil, these communities will continue, though not in the land of their origin. As for the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communities, these will continue if those who leave Syria are able to find host communities in the lands to which they emigrate. But one thing is certain: just as Istanbul is no longer a Christian city, and has not been since the early 1920’s, so shall it be with Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul and Baghdad. These historical Orthodox sees all face extinction.
It is a sad story, but after five years of civil war, for the peoples of Syria, the best hope is a life away from the scene of the catastrophe. As for Mr Assad, he may, backed by Russia and Iran, continue to rule – but over what?