Am catching up a bit on late posting as have been rather busy of late, so a few coming in late. Here is a piece for the 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) about Syria. Takes a somewhat negative view which may be finally slipping into the past (and I had previously elaborated in a letter to the Financial Times and for CNN), but at the same time, it is hard to see rapid action taking place any time soon. As usual, I have posted the Chinese above, and the English I initially submitted below.
潘睿凡 英国伦敦国际激进主义化 研究中心副研究员
Syria’s Worsening Conflict
As we enter the 20th month of fighting in Syria, it is clear the situation is only deteriorating. Violence is increasingly spilling across borders, radical groups in the country are becoming better armed and more extreme, while atrocities by both sides continue unabated. And while this internal chaos continues to worsen, the international community stands by, with everyone supporting their respective proxies under the table. The result is a stalemate that is going to incubate problems that will haunt the world for years to come.
First, let us look at how the situation is deteriorating. From a low level civil conflict in which an overbearing government was trying to hold onto power using relatively limited force, we have now degenerated into a conflict in which increasingly brutal acts are being carried out by both sides. The government has taken to using cluster bomb munitions in cities as part of a heavy airborne bombing campaign that punishes rebel held areas, regardless of the possible civilian presence. From the rebel’s perspective, extremist factions within the confusing coalition that makes up the opposition have taken to releasing videos in which they coldly execute captured government prisoners, others in which they show prisoners who have been tortured and suicide bombers are no longer a rarity. And as the fighting drags on, both sides become better at carrying out such acts and surviving in such a brutal environment, further prolonging and rendering more gruesome the conflict.
But more menacing to the world than this internal escalation is the increasing evidence of regional overspill taking place. There are stories of the Syrian government supporting PKK rebels in Turkey in revenge for Turkey’s support of rebels inside Syria. It has been reported, with apparent documentary support, that Syrian forces may have executed a captured Turkish pilot whose plane was brought down by their air defense system. More clear than either of these stories was the shooting earlier this month of a missile from Syria into Turkey, killing five Turks. Turkey, a key staging post for rebels going into Syria, has struck back in different ways. Aside from continuing to allow its territory to be a conduit for rebels and the weapons, they have also acted to intercept supplies being shipped in to support the government, something that has angered both the Syrian government and their Russian suppliers.
Within Syria itself, these proxy dynamics continue, with Iranian forces and their Lebanese and Iraqi proxies mobilizing in support of the Assad regime. Facing off against them are rebel groups supported by Gulf Arab money, with recent reports highlighting that a high proportion of the weapons being provided to the rebels were ending up in the hands of jihadist factions whose vision is less focused on simply freeing the country from Assad than the creation of a shariah governed caliphate. Exactly the sort of ideology that drives groups like al Qaeda, as the old dynamic of Gulf money supporting Sunni extremists plays against the Shiite supported Iranian-Syrian coalition.
And so we have all the ingredients necessary for a toxic swamp. A sectarian conflict (let us not forget that at heart Syria is a struggle between an Alawite minority and the Sunni Arab majority they have brutally ruled over for decades), with the religious overtones of the never-ending Sunni-Shia struggle, that has increasingly become a staging ground for other powers to play out their proxy games.
This is a sad mess we have seen before: back in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia fell apart, a very similar dynamic played itself out with many of the same actors. The result was the creation of a jihadist battlefield in the middle of Europe that produced a number of terrorist cells and the creation of a pariah state – Serbia – that sits alone in the middle of the continent to this day. Eventually the outside world did step into that conflict, but by that time it was far too late and the scars will still take years to heal.
But rapid intervention can also have negative repercussions. At Britain and France’s instigation, NATO deployed relatively rapidly in Libya to support the rebellion against Colonel Gadhaffi. And while the end result was his deposition and the creation of a free government, it is clear that extremist factions have established themselves in the country and the transition will not be as clean as many hoped. There is some light at the end of this tunnel, however, as a public outcry against the groups has already started to build, suggesting that the picture remains a complex one with many in the country rejecting the extremist’s message. While it is too early to say, it is possible that the more rapid resolution of events in Libya left the nation less brutalized and prone to extremism.
The problem with Syria is that the longer the stalemate drags on, the more powerful these extremist groups become and the deeper becomes the hatred between the various factions. As more and more atrocities are committed and people killed, the harder it becomes to reconcile later when the country is being brought back together. This leads to a balkanization within the country with different areas ruled by different groups, a state of affairs that incubates problems for decades to come.
It is not clear how far along in the Syrian conflict we are at this point or how much longer it has to run. Any day a sudden shift could take place if Bashar al Assad was killed or the government chose to deploy chemical weapons. But at the moment it grinds brutally on with others advancing their interests by proxy and further worsening a situation while the people of Syria feel abandoned by the international community. This is a story we have seen played out many times before, and the end result is always further problems for everyone else down the road. Simply waiting for it to burn out can take years and will only make the recovery period longer. We have already let things run too long to avoid any subsequent negative repercussions, let us not continue to make this mistake for too much longer.