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If regional, Western powers kept out of Syrian conflict, killing would have been minimised

Mar 13,2019 - Last updated at Mar 13,2019

Both Europe and this region are divided on how to deal with Syria now that the war is winding down. Britain, Germany and France continue to adopt a hard-nosed policy towards Damascus. They call for regime change and stepping up sanctions, which are not targeting the government but are harming civilians. This is, of course, always the case.

Italy, Greece, Austria, Hungary and Poland favour ending European sanctions against Syria, and seek to help rebuild the country so refugees can go home. Sweden, Spain and Ireland argue refugees cannot be sent home to a country devastated by war. Half of Syria’s 24 million people are either displaced within Syria or refugees outside. The UN estimates that the conflict has inflicted $388 million worth of destruction and damage.

Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Palestine and Bahrain argue that Syria should return to the Arab League. Morocco and Egypt are sitting on the fence, calling for dialogue over ending Syria’s eight-year suspension. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry says that before rejoining the Arab fold, Damascus must implement the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which laid down a roadmap for a countrywide ceasefire and a peace process. However, Cairo also backs a proposal by Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq for Syria’s rehabilitation.

Last December, Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Syria since 2011, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus and Bahrain followed suit. Bahrain was significant as it is a close ally of Saudi Arabia.

Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq are particularly eager to see Syria readmitted to the league and rehabilitated internationally, as these countries have suffered most, economically and politically, from the war. Jordan has received 1.2 million Syrians, 661,000 registered with the UN, Lebanon 2.2 million, 1 million registered, and Iraq 240,000 at a time 3 million of its own civilians are displaced.

The refugees are a drain on these countries’ resources and have strained relations with their citizens. Lebanon’s transit trade with the Arab hinterland has been seriously disrupted, while Jordan and Iraq have seen commerce with Syria shrink. The Jordanian tourism sector has been hard hit by the absence first of Iraq and then of Syria as regional destinations. In 2010, the year before the Syrian conflict erupted, 8 million tourists visited Syria and 11 million were expected in 2011. A great many would also have visited Jordan.

Having “lost” the war because of the failure of the Western-backed political and armed opposition to effect regime change, the European hold-outs and the US still hope to achieve their objective by pressing for implementation of Resolution 2254, which calls for “transition” and free elections. The “transition” envisaged, laid down in the Geneva communiqué of June 2012, was from a government which has staved off the violent and political efforts to topple it. While Damascus now controls 60 per cent of Syria’s territory, the US, Britain, France and Turkey continue to use territory as leverage against the government, prolonging the war dangerously. Damascus has pledged to regain all Syria’s land as well as its sovereignty. Russia and Iran have vowed to support this endeavour.

US-Britain-French-backed Kurds hold 25 per cent of Syria, Turkey has seized the district of Afrin in the northwest and the Jarablus-Al Bab-Azzaz triangle in the north and Al Qaeda’s Hayat Tahrir Al Sham occupies the north-western province of Idlib, which has become the last bastion of the two groups dubbed “terrorist” by Resolution 2254, Tahrir Al Sham and Daesh.

The protracted battle waged by US-supported Kurdish forces against Daesh hardliners at the Syrian desert town of Baghouz on the Euphrates River in the far east has revealed the risks of allowing these groups to take root, prosper and survive. More than 55,000, mainly women and children, and hundreds of fighters have been driven from Baghouz, many of them Daesh loyalists determined to fight another day. The Kurds, who have received little assistance from their sponsors, cannot cope with this influx of angry, defiant, destitute people who, aside from the Iraqis, have been rejected by their home countries.

The situation in Idlib, a province hosting 3 million people, is far worse. At least 20,000 Tahrir Al Sham fighters dominate the scene and have established a Salvation Government. Tahrir Al Sham is supported by an unknown number of fighters from equally radical groups, while militants from the Turkish-sponsored units of the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of largely undisciplined rabble, have surrendered to Tahrir Al Sham. It has rejected the ceasefire and partial pull-out laid down by Russia and Turkey last September. Tahrir Al Sham and its allies, using civilians as human shields, also continue to strike Syrian army and other targets outside Idlib, provoking Damascus to respond. The army, the Russian air force and pro-Iranian militias, which have suspended the long-promised all-out offensive in Idlib, cannot be restrained forever. No one can afford to allow Al Qaeda to continue to have a base in north-western Syria, not the Arabs, the Turks, the US or the Europeans.

Preoccupied with Iran’s presence in Syria and Iraq, US President Donald Trump does not know or care about the Idlib situation. He certainly does not comprehend that Iran would never have had a foothold in Iraq if the US had refrained from invading and occupying that country in 2003 and installing pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalists in power. Furthermore, Iran and Iraqi Shiite militias would also not have intervened in Syria if regional and Western powers had kept out of the Syrian civil conflict, which would have ended in 2012 without massive killing, destruction and the seizure of Raqqa by Daesh and conquest of Idlib by insurgents who were overborne by Tahrir Al Sham.

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