Do we need reminding about the catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war? In case we do, here is a brief article in the Guardian which sums up the horror.
It is not just the huge amount of civilian deaths that we should lament, but also the economic dislocation which has been caused by the fracturing of the country. In addition, we should also lament the fact that several historic communities are facing oblivion. What is also bewildering is that the rest of the world has either facilitated this catastrophe, by arming and encouraging various parties to the fighting, or else stood by and wrung its hands and done nothing effective to stop the fighting. But lack of effective intervention to promote peace leaves us with this terrible question: what exactly could have been done, or should have been done, that might have helped?
The Syrian civil war shows several marked resemblances with the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. Or at least those are the dates that are usually given. People who know Lebanon think that the civil war is still going on in a certain sense: there are tensions, though these tend to be kept underground, except when they break out in a high-profile political assassination. Given that there was vicious fighting for 15 years, the precedent for Syria is not good, where we have had four years of fighting so far.
The form of the fighting that is ruining Syria today is similar to the form of the fighting that wrecked Lebanon. Effectively what we see is what is called “cantonisation”: the country has broken up into rival fiefdoms and statelets, the most notorious of which is of course the so-called Islamic State, each one protected by its own private army. The government of Syria is no longer such except in name, as it does not control the national territory, or even the whole of the capital city, or the whole of the largest city, Aleppo. Aleppo today functions, if that is the word, like Beirut in the 80s: it is a divided city, and one cannot cross from one side to the other. As in Lebanon, the sides in the civil war are effectively determined by religious allegiance: it is hard not to see this as yet another round in the conflict between Sunni and Shia, and the face off by proxy between the chief Sunni power, Saudi Arabia, and the chief Shia one, Iran. Having destroyed Lebanon, and now in the process of destroying Syria, there are still many other places where this conflict can play out. The Sunni versus Shia conflict in Bahrain seems resolved, for now, but should not be forgotten. Nor should it be forgotten that Saudi Arabia has a large and resentful Shia population.
In the end some sort of external pressure will have to be brought to bear to bring about a fragile truce and return to a semblance of normality in Syria. It seems unlikely that the Syrian army, well equipped as it may be, is large enough to defeat its enemies. And where will that external pressure come from, if not Washington? It is hard to imagine any effective pressure that does not have the co-operation of Washington, and, perhaps, Moscow. It is not true to say that this catastrophe is somehow the fault of the West. But it is hard to see any solution without the help of the West. Or are we to let matters continue like this indefinitely, when such a high price is being paid by the innocent people of Syria?
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