Besieged Syrian Towns: All the Hands in the Pie (or Mess)

BBC SYRIA MAP
Source: BBC

In my last post, “Never Again” – But Not For the Besieged in Syria, I talked about the desperate situation in the town of Madaya, about 30 miles outside of Damascus and how residents there are being starved to death. The charity group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have issued urgent and dire warnings of about 400 citizens needing to be evacuated to bigger cities or else they’ll face imminent death and the desperate need of food aid and medical supplies. Photos and videos purported to be from the town of Madaya have been posted to social media to show the desperation of the residents. The photos and film footage could not be independently verified as it’s near impossible to do so in a warzone where communication and travel is controlled by warring factions but what’s been verified is there is a hunger crisis in the besieged towns and villages in Syria and people are suffering from malnutrition and scores have died due to hunger and starvation related diseases.

However, as per usual of Syrian government denials, the Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Ja’afari has denied there are starving people in Madaya, calling it the West’s attempt to smear his government (no, sir, you can manage that on your own just fine)

[Bashar al-Ja’afari] calling the images of starving people “fabrications.” He said his government had appealed for humanitarian assistance weeks ago.

“The problem is the terrorists are stealing the humanitarian assistance from the Syrian Red Crescent as well as from the United Nations,” al-Ja’afari said.

He denied the Syrian government is using starvation as a tool of war, which is generally considered a war crime.

“The Syrian government did not stop any convoys of humanitarian assistance,” he said. “On the contrary: We sent plenty of convoys and we asked the U.N. to send more.”

So, we are back to the ‘blame all problems of Syria on the terrorists’ again. There are terrorists in Syria, in fact the whole country is teeming with them, starting at the top with Bashar Al-Assad, followed closely by ISIS, al-Nusra Front and other motley crue of Islamist and Jihadi affiliated groups.

Steven O’Brien, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, have confirmed to reporters that he has received “reports of people who are either starving or indeed have starved and died.”

“I can tell you that we have had confirmation of extreme malnourishment of a number of people across all ages.”

-Steven O’Brien

As of January 11, convoys of food aid, winter kits, medicines and medical supplies have safely made its way into Madaya and its rival Shia, pro-Assad villages Fua and Kefraya, more of which I’ll get into later. After some last minute snags, over 40 trucks were able to make it safely into Madaya and have moved on to Fua and Kefraya. They have sent enough food to last for one month if they don’t get confiscated or stolen. US Secretary of State, John Kerry has demanded for full, safe, unhindered humanitarian access to all besieged and hard to reach places in Syria. Anything short of that is a direct human rights violation.

I have been called to task by some to declare a position in Syria so that we can “pressure” the right people to make this suffering stop. My initial response, and quite rightly, is there is no way to pick a side. Firstly, we don’t really know what’s going in the warzone. The news filtering out of Syria is unreliable at best and at worst totally fabricated to suit which ever side is giving the update. By last count, besides Al-Assad, ISIS and al-Nusra Front, there are at least and if not more 500 other opposition forces fighting for control in Syria. Some of them jihadi and al-Qaeda affiliated, some of them moderate, some of them non-Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists. The Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist but in the imaginations of US foreign policy makers to make it appear there is a real cohesive moderate force fighting on the ground.

It does rather sound like a cop out to not ‘pick a side’ or show more conviction about one over the other, so I will attempt to choose a lesser evil but I doubt I’ll succeed. First and foremost, I choose the side of the civilians, any civilian, be they Shia, Sunni, Christian or others. Whether they are pro-Assad or not (and they are probably pro-Assad due to religious affiliation and not personal affection), if they are civilians and did not take up arms to fight, they deserve protection. If they do pick up arms but it’s for self-defense, such as Kurdish fighters or Christian militias to defend their people and their own territory for slaughter, they deserve protection too. For anyone else, if you pick up arms to fight for a cause, be it jihadi, moderate, somewhere in the middle, you have jumped into the fray.

As more information is coming from the besieged quadrangle of cities and villages of Madaya, Fua, Kefraya and Zabadani, the situation has become infinitely more complicated. These four areas are in close vicinity to each other and the Lebanese border, therefore it is of paramount importance to not only Assad but the Hezbollah on who ultimately has control.

Madaya is an anti-Assad Sunni town, the town is surrounded by rebel fighters (the anti-Assad fighters), Assad’s forces and the Hezbollah. They’ve boobie trapped the perimeter of the town with landmines, barbed wire and snipers are on standby to shoot anyone trying to breach the perimeters of the town. It’s been reported that residents were shot looking for food, but this town is really just a pawn for the larger prize. No one is allowed in or out.

Zabadani is a bigger city close to the border of Lebanon which is anti-Assad but an important supply route with roads that connect Syria and Lebanon. Pro-Assad forces would like to clear all opposition from Zabadani so they can have safe access between Syria and Lebanon. According to an opinion column on the The Syrian Observer, Mohamed Chebaro:

Experts explain how the removal of opposition forces from the town and valley of Zabadani clears the way to establish an opposition free zone that extends along the Lebanese Syrian border. This of course comes with the help of Hezbollah militias fighting to clear opposition fighters and people from all of the Qalamoun mountain range zigzagging along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria.

Pro-Assad forces also want to “entertain” a land and population swap and essentially remove by force (if they aren’t killed already) anti-Assad people so that whole area can come under Assad control. It’s also a way of doing away with the arbitrary Sykes-Picot borders and the two allies Lebanon and Syria can essentially share a border. Chebaro also claims these types of land swap deals could be the first manifestations of the partition of Syria where an Alawite nation-state is established, which to him is unacceptable because it really only serves the interests of the Iranians, Shias, Alawites and Russia, for it to maintain a stronghold in the Mediterranean.

Such a state could strengthen bids made by Syrian Kurds to demand self-rule for a autonomous region regardless of the endgame arrived at with a United Syria or a carved up one.

Right wing Israelis would be another party keen on seeing minority statelets or enclaves pop up, based on religious and/or ethnic ground. This would justify calls made by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud government for Israel to be recognized as a Jewish state.

In the short term, yes, dividing Syria could serve some interests of some parties for a short time. But I believe the international community must not accept or entertain a demographic or land transfer and stop flirting with and reject proposals tabled by Western policy makers that it is time in the Middle East to do away with the Sykes Picot lines in the sand drawn to carve the region up between France and Great Britain who defeated the Ottoman empire in the 20th century.

Fua and Kefraya are pro-Assad Shia villages. They are surrounded and under siege by anti-Assad forces, a jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham who has promised to slaughter all the Shia residents as soon as the siege breaks. Pro-Assad forces are desperately trying to hang on so this doesn’t happen. Because these are pro-Assad villages, the Syrian government has made intermittent food drops by helicopter so their situation is not as desperate, but they are also starving and suffering from malnutrition. Because of their loyalty to Assad, they’ve not been totally cut off and left to starve and eat their domestic animals and grass. It has also been claimed by the Syrian government that rebels and terrorists have stolen the food they’ve dropped. Perhaps they have, it’s certainly not out of the realm of imagination or possibility, but again, the claim is unverified and unverifiable.

It has been reported and indirectly verified by the UN that they (all the fighting factions) have been trying to get aid into Madaya as they are the most affected, but, and this was a huge but, the Syrian government as a condition of providing safe passage, wants aid to go to their villages Fua and Kefraya as well. They were not going to let one happen without the other and a stalemate ensued between the Syrian government, the rebels fighting in these towns and aid groups. When images and reports of extreme starvation and malnutrition coming out of Madaya, despite the images not being independently verified, all the arrangements have come together in days, which is a long time in these desperate situations where every minute counts, but it didn’t take months the stalemate between negotiations was broken. The denials from the Assad government weren’t as vociferous as well. They issued a standard denial from their UN Ambassador and moved on rather quickly. It also turns out they were in the process of negotiating a population swap between Pro and Anti-Assad areas but talks stalled there as well.

As for what should happen in Syria should war end tomorrow, this is an impossible proposition. It’s like asking what will happen with the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I, impossible to answer. The Picot-Sykes borders were arbitrary lines, which were detested by the locals but to do away with them one hundred years after they were drawn isn’t entirely wise if there’s no alternate plan in place. Assad’s ally Russia proposes that Assad should have an ‘elegant’ way out, and if elegant means he will need to be in the picture for the near future and have him lead the Shia and Alawites until a better solution is found, and if this prevents more people being killed by opposing sects, then the West will have to bite the bullet. Most western leaders have also begun to accept this unpalatable reality. Many predict Syria will partition as a natural result of years of sectarian fighting. To try and put Humpty Dumpty back together after such a fracture is near impossible and undoable, just look at their neighbor Iraq.

To think Russia is an unconditional ally of Syria, we are mistaken as well. The 60 Minutes which just aired this past Sunday featured Vladimir Komoyedov, chairman of the Russian Parliament’s Defense Committee. He is tasked with the planning of the mission in Syria and to say he is less than enamoured of President Bashar Al-Assad is an understatement. The interview is conducted in Russian with a translator and apparently he uttered a derogatory name about President Assad and asked CBS news to not air it, they honored it and didn’t (now I really want to know exactly what he said). Komoyedov sees Assad as weak, not leading his forces, and said if he needs to personally come down and lead the army then he needs to do it.

Bill Whitaker: Did Russia overestimate the power of the Syrian Army?

Vladimir Komoyedov: But we have been fulfilling our obligations to Syria and we will go on fulfilling them. President Assad shouldn’t rest on his laurels. He needs to work on his army, and raise its morale, and if necessary, lead the army himself. He needs to unite his forces which are scattered like fingers. They must be clenched into a fist. If you can’t beat them, at least you can give them a black eye.

Not a resounding endorsement. Komoyedov also went on to say the reason why Syria is the state it’s in is because of the actions of Assad, he bombed his own people and caused this. He created the opposition and he has lost his authority to lead. However, this contradicts what he says is Russia’s aim in its operation in Syria, and that is to “restore statehood in this region, Syrian statehood.” Komoyedov almost looks regretful in sticking his hand in the mess that is Syria, but Russia does have a legitimate interest in the region and they must work with the hand they are dealt, which is a poor and ineffective military leader in Assad. The look on Komoyedov’s face is certainly less than enthusiastic, he’s more resigned than anything. It is also very unlikely Russian will put their boots on the ground any time soon, as of right now, they are doing manned airstrikes on anti-Assad targets. In the tinderbox of supercharged emotions that is Syria right now, it might be good to have more calm, cold, indifferent and secular Russia conducting military operations.

One other option is to ask all the various proxies to back out of the fight. To have the Saudis stop funding Sunni insurgents, Iran to stop funding the Shia insurgents or Hezbollah. Hezbollah will only defend immediate Lebanese interest such as the border towns but as for the wider region, they should bow out. This way the chips will fall where they may and whatever emerges is the ‘new Syria’. It would be one thing if there was a cohesive opposition fighting a regime, but it’s not. There are too many hands in the pie, too many factions and groups with opposing interests fighting for control, and they’ve not achieved their aim but have allowed Assad to stay in power.

According to ‘Middle East Research and Information Project: On ISIS’,

The Syrian war has been prolonged and intensified by outside meddling. To besiege the regime, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies bankrolled untold rebel battalions, most of which professed Sunni Islamist views. Turkey allowed several commanders to set up camp on its soil, and looked the other way as travelers slipped across its southern border to reinforce the various jihadi groups in the opposition. The US made abortive attempts to stand up “moderate” anti-Asad militias. The regime, for its part, brought in Hizballah units from Lebanon to fight alongside its army and paramilitaries. Iran sent advisers, Revolutionary Guards and money; Russia provided diplomatic cover and, starting in September, air power to deploy against the rebels. ISIS thrived in the chaos.

So, when people wonder how, after all this time Assad is still there, there’s the answer.

If Russia’s aim is to give Assad’s opponents a “black eye”, barring a truce or peace treaty, then the world should be prepared to see more years of fighting than less, more refugees and more deaths.

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