The greatest human disaster in the 21st century is how Adrian Sindall sums up the situation in Syria. And he should know because he can see the differences today to when he was our man in Damascus twenty years ago.
Today Syria has become an international proxy war with US, Russia, France, Turkey and the EU involved; sometimes in military action but also attempting a diplomatic solution. This is hindered by 1500 factions either for or against the Syrian government and also fighting amongst themselves. The statistics of this conflict, now in its seventh year, are staggering. 300,000 dead, 1,000,000 wounded, half the population, 6,300,000, living in refugee camps in Syria and 4,900,000 refugees in neighbouring countries.
It was never a straightforward situation in Syria and the surrounding Middle East. This whole region was divided up by the French and British after the First World War following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Syria was further sub-divided by France to include an area dominated by the Kurds. The Second World War saw Syria support the Palestinian cause with later increasing Russian influence, both militarily and commercially where Syria adopted a Marxist command style economy. Over the years various types of relationships were developed in the region by the dividing powers with increasing support from US.
Syria felt betrayed that Egypt signed a peace accord with Israel and thought it necessary to strengthen ties with Iran. Similarly Iraq was supported by the US. And there were all kinds complicated cross supporting alliances that if charted looked more confusing than an electrical wiring diagramme.
After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria was left almost isolated and needed to develop relationships with western countries. It had helped that they had supported the allies in the Gulf War. When President Assad died and his eldest son having previously been killed in a car crash, the second son, Bashar, was in London training to be an ophthalmogist. He returned to Damascus to become leader of the Ba’ath Party and President.
With the rise of the Arab Spring movement in 2011 across several countries it soon became the turn of the Syrian government to defend its position. At that time the US considered that Assad should not benefit from any western assistance as Russia was increasing their influence and Iran wanted to keep him in power. Then Turkey and Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood put in their pennyworth but this upset Saudi Arabia.
Today, with direct Russian military support Assad appears to have turned a corner in this highly complicated conflict. Looking at a map of the current situation appears confusing to the layman but the reality is that while ISIS and their acolytes occupy 75% of the land mass it only contains 25% of the remaining population whereas Assad controls 25% of the land, mainly by the coast, and this is the important bit, 75% of the population.
In recent times there has emerged an international feeling that Assad might stay in place and therefore should be involved in the diplomatic process of finding a solution. Any US/Russia joint initiative has hit a snag because of a US law that prohibits cooperation between these countries. There then comes a question of who will be in charge of those parts of the country after ISIS has been defeated. Shades of Iraq and Libya where there was a failure to have a proper exit policy.
The toll on Syria, both culturally with the destruction by ISIS of World Heritage sites like Palmyra and economically, has been substantial. Only time will tell if it ever recovers.
Adrian Sindall summed up the overall situation that Syria is rather like a Rubic’s cube when compared to a cross word puzzle.