What is going on in Syria?


By their very nature, politics are complicated. Middle East politics are the definition of complexity. So, to ask a politician at a dinner party to explain what is going on in Syria is a tough question. What makes it harder is that most people, especially outside the region, don’t know much about its history or appreciate its peculiarity.

When the uprising erupted in southern Syria in 2011, it was about local demands. After their children were imprisoned and tortured, Dara tribes demanded their immediate release. In the face of harsh measures against the demonstrators, more people, in different parts of the country, called for human rights and the Emergency Law to be lifted.

President Bashar Assad had two options: To give his people what they should have been given in the first place or to do what his security forces have always done — oppress them!

Saudi Arabia sent a high-level delegation to offer the president full support for the first option. At the same time, Iran sent a competing delegation advising the second option. They reminded him of the response of his father, Hafiz Assad, to an earlier uprising, in 1982. Then, the city of Hama was bombarded and tens of thousands were killed.

Unfortunately, Bashar Assad, encouraged by his generals, chose the Iranian way. What came next was the start of a full destruction of modern Syria. Its people returned fire with fire. Invited and uninvited international and regional players joined the foray.

The presence of Iran with its sectarian militias drew in jihadists from all over the world. Assad released other jihadists to face them. Turkey concerned over refugees and Kurdish involvement took sides. Neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, as well as Gulf states felt the refugee pressure and were threatened by terrorism. Europe and the United States were not immune.

In 2012, the international community intervened and brought to the negotiation table, in Geneva, a Syrian regime that ruled less than quarter of its territory, with winning resistance groups. A weakened Assad agreed to hand over his authority to a new transitional government that would write a new constitution and run UN-supervised elections excluding him.

Then the Russians showed up! They brought with them a devastating air force and provided the regime with weapons of mass destruction, experimenting 200 new weapons on Syrian people. Within months, they managed to change the balance of power. Whole cities and civilian areas were leveled to the ground. Millions were displaced to other areas or took refuge in neighboring countries. Iran sent in more Revolutionary Guards with Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Daesh (the so-called IS) drew an alliance of over 60 nations, led by the US. Now the war zone is becoming more like World War II.

As soon as terrorists were defeated, allies turned into competitors. Russia and Iran are in the process of dividing what they called “Useful Syria.” It includes the heartland and Mediterranean coast. The Americans and their Kurdish allies are competing with Turkey over the north. East and south are contested grounds.

Like it wasn’t crowded enough, Israel has joined the circus — full time! In the past, it made a point not to intervene, except when its national security is threatened. Israeli missiles and fighter jets had attacked a Syrian chemical factory, arms shipments to Hezbollah, and military convoys and posts. Recently, the scope became larger, as Iran began to establish military bases in different parts of Syria, following Russia’s example. An Iranian drone was shot over the Golan Heights and an Israeli F16 was downed by Syrian air defense. In response, Israeli air force attacked some 11 Iranian positions in heartland Syria.

In the North, Turkey made good of its warning that it won’t tolerate US-supported Kurdish forces at its southern borders. Its army went into an open war and entered the northwestern part of Syria.

In Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus — the scene of earlier chemical attacks — the Russians have joined Assad forces in another blast of civilian areas. A global outcry couldn’t stop the ferocious attack that hasn’t spared even schools and hospitals. Iranian forces, Lebanese and other Shiite militias joined the killing party, too. Now we have a Security Council resolution to humanitarian ceasefire for thirty days. Time will show if it holds.

As long as the invaders are entrenched, the Syrian saga won’t end any time soon. Russia and Iran are digging in for a long-term presence. The United States and Turkey are into the game. Israel can’t rest with enemies on its borders. Arab neighbors have a stake on all the above. The refugee problem alone is overwhelming vulnerable societies and weak economies, especially in Lebanon and Jordan. Add to that the threat of war and terrorism and you get the picture!

This is a quick summary of what is going on in Syria, ladies and gentlemen. Does it make any sense at all? Your input and comments are most welcome.

— Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him at Twitter:@kbatarfi