The solid victory of Bashar al-Assad in the June 3 Syrian presidential election is certain to lengthen further the vicious and bloody war in Syria. Characterized as “phony, fraudulent, political theater, and comedy,” by Barack Obama administration officials, the election provides significant staying power to the Damascus regime, compounding the dire humanitarian straits of the displaced and refugees. It reduces the probability of earnest negotiations between the regime and oppositional forces. Any such negotiations are further unlikely because of the scores of divergent opposing forces and organizations. The US, Turkey and Gulf Arab countries sending more powerful weapons to supposedly vetted oppositional forces make it certain that more bloodshed, displacement and death await.
The civil war in Syria, now heading into its fourth year, is truly full of tragedies for all Syrians, not just for those engaged in war. It is a tragedy for all concerned. The tragedies are compounded by the wrong analyses of the nature of the war by the US, Europe, Israel, the Gulf Arab countries and Turkey, all of whom sought to topple the Assad Baathist government. Now, after nearly four years of war, the Assad government achieved victory in the June 3 presidential election.
The tragedies in Syria go way beyond the estimated 160,000 killed, which means at least 350,000 injured and wide swaths of major cities and towns such as Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Dar’a and Raqqa destroyed, as well as smaller towns and villages. It has been reported that up to 1,400 people died in a gas attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in August 2013. As a result of the gas attacks, the US and Russia agreed, finally, to compel Syria to remove its chemical gas holdings. As of June 2014, 10 percent of the located gas has still not been removed. There is still sparse movement from the international community to meet the desperate needs of Syria’s people.
Scholars, analysts and tourists who have visited and lived in Syria for periods of time are heartsick about the destruction not just of factories and businesses but of schools, hospitals, water treatment and sewage centers and hundreds of ancient mosques, churches, synagogues and other places of worship for other minorities; six United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sites have been razed.
It is now estimated by UN sources that up to 9 million people have been displaced by the war: 6 million are internally displaced and 3 million have been compelled to flee to other countries, especially Lebanon (1 million), Turkey (800,000), Jordan (800,000), Arab Iraq (150,000) and Iraqi Kurdistan (340,000). Others have immigrated to the Arab Gulf countries and to Egypt; some have fled to Europe.
Exploitation of refugees
Arab and Turkish newspapers have daily reports on the plight of the refugees. Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan, with UN support, have provided valuable support and succor to the refugees. There are also scores of reports regarding the exploitation of refugees. In addition to shortages of food, lack of water, inadequate sanitation and low wages for those who do succeed in finding work, there is much abuse of women, who, along with children, most of whom have had no schooling for four years, comprise 70 to 80 percent of the refugees. Women have suffered greatly. Women and girls, many not treated well in their native lands, are now on the receiving end of more abuse at the hands of Turkish, Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian and Kurdish men.
Worse yet, the weather forecast is for yet another summer of drought, along with reports of more disease and famine in eastern and southern Syria and more war.
When considering the dire circumstances of Syria’s people, it is important to consider the causes of the war and the wrongheadedness of those who have relentlessly pursued it.
• The major contributors to the civil war were the US, the European Union, Israel, Turkey and the Arab Gulf countries. This coalition’s constant clamor for war against Iran started earnestly in 2002 and had reached hysterical levels by 2013. Russia and Iran countered the clamor by supporting the Assad regime in order to protect their vital geostrategic interests in the east Mediterranean and the wider Middle East.
• The objective of the coalition was to topple the Shiite Assad Baathist regime, which is an ally of Iran (Shiite). Directly attacking Iran was not considered (only by Israel), because of the probable lengthy consequences of such a war. Washington was also busy during this period trying to extricate itself from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• By attacking the Assad regime, the coalition thought they would decimate both the regime and Iran’s Shiite Hezbollah Lebanese ally.
• Kudos was to be gained for the coalition by the further weakening of the Palestinian Hamas government in Gaza allied (before 2011) with Assad, Hezbollah and Iran. Indeed, war broke out between Hamas and Israel in 2012 after the civil war in Syria had started.
• The destruction of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Assad regime would then compel Iran to meet the conditions demanded by the P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) in the negotiations taking place in Geneva. Indeed, they are still taking place and are expected to have a reasonable chance of reaching some kind of acceptable agreement by July 20 or, at least, by the time of the US congressional elections in November. If such an agreement is not reached, the US and Israel have stated repeatedly that “all options are on the table,” which is taken to mean that Israel, the US, or a combination of the two countries’ armed forces would attack Iran.
Two specific objectives
• On Sept. 24, 2013, President Obama, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, stated what is now considered the Obama Doctrine. He repeated it again in his speech to the graduating class at West Point on May 28. In both speeches he stated emphatically that two specific objectives in the Middle East would occupy the last three years of his presidency: the Iran nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
• It is clear, as a result of the recently concluded US-led Israel-Palestine talks, that one of the Obama administration’s two major objectives has failed and seems unlikely to be resuscitated during the last two-and-a-half years of his presidency.
• That leaves the Iran nuclear issue. But the Assad regime has not been toppled, Hezbollah is fighting valiantly in Syria, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas are regrouping and Assad has been re-elected. It is likely that the second objective will not be met unless the P5+1 and Iran can come to some agreement. Without an agreement, the war in Syria cannot be seriously addressed.
• This means that much is riding on the results of the July 20 deadline for the talks between the P5+1 and Iran. As I mentioned above, it seems likely that the talks will be extended until after the US congressional elections which, in turn, means the negotiations might well extend into 2015.
• This means that the Obama administration, the EU and international humanitarian organizations will have, at best, maybe one year to address the dire circumstances of the people of Syria.
The re-election of Assad as president of Syria indicates that most of the issues for which the war is being fought will not be addressed and the tragedies of the people of Syria will mount.
The question before the world community is whether it will take any significant action before 10 million people, nearly half of Syria’s total population, are victims of war. The reasons for the war and its consequences remain unresolved. Indications are they will not be addressed any time soon.
It is shameful.
Robert Olson is the author of “The Ba’th and Syria: 1947-1982, the Evolution of Party and State: From the French Withdrawal to the Era of Hafiz Al-Asad.” This article was first published in Today’s Zaman, a l;eading newspaper of Turkey