Syrians are on their own

No foreign intervention is go­ing to uproot ISIS or quell support for Assad regime, which it still has by millions.

No obvious end appears likely


2015/08/28 Issue: 20 Page: 7


The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr



When anti-gov­ernment protests started in Syria in March 2011, the Damascus satellite town of Douma was one of the first to rise up. It has seen an influx of migrants from eastern Syria fleeing drought and crop failure and that drove up property prices. Everyone was angry.

Before the revolution Douma was regarded as a place apart from the rest of Damascus and its hinter­lands. People there, Damascenes would say, were strong-willed, con­servative and independent-mind­ed. Unlike anywhere else, camels were bought, sold and butchered in Douma. The first and only time I tasted camel meat was when a kilo was given to me by a friend from the town and when he did so many others in our company — middle-class Damascenes — sniggered at the idea. For four-and-a-half years Douma has been bombed from the air and ground, besieged and subjected to starvation.

At the beginning of the upris­ing, Friday demonstrators were detained by government security forces, tortured over weeks and months and then released. This physical violence radicalised young men who took up arms against the regime in defence of the town.

Fast forward three years to 2014. Weekly protests had long since ceased. Hospitals, mosques and schools lay in ruins from govern­ment air strikes.

Though many had been killed, the armed men still alive who were once inspired by revolution and the regime’s injustice now fought in the name of God for the rebel group Jaysh al-Islam or “Army of God.” They, too, used rocket attacks. Then on August 16th, an air strike killed more than 100 civil­ians out buying fruit and vegeta­bles.

That this happened within a day of Stephen O’Brien, the UN under­secretary for humanitarian affairs, meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus — a dozen kilometres from the site of the attack — speaks of the extent to which no one can or wants to effect a solution to this war.

What is staggering to me is the apparent lack of empathy among my Syrian friends and contacts towards the Douma attack or the beheading of Khaled al-Asaad, a retired, 82-year-old chief archae­ologist in Palmyra, by Islamic State (ISIS) militants. Then again, perhaps the horror of seeing one’s country evaporate into dust and blood week after week, year upon year is too much to face when no obvious end appears likely.

Living in Syria today does not follow a news schedule: Every day there are killings, every day the government bombs civilians.

Rightly or wrongly, by now most people in Syria do not consider this barbarity something of immediate concern. Maybe, in the privacy of their own thoughts, Syrians have stopped squabbling over whether Syrian President Bashar Assad, ISIS, rebels or Washington is to blame and begun thinking about the scale of what this war has and will still cost.

For those of us on the outside looking in, little beyond support for crucial humanitarian work can help. No foreign intervention is go­ing to uproot ISIS or quell support for the Assad regime, which it still has by the millions. Critically, there is no ripeness, as some scholars of conflict term it, in which to intro­duce peace talks of a transitional authority.

Too many groups, particularly rebels fighting the regime in the north-west and south, still feel they are winning and that to drop arms and negotiate now would be an admission of defeat. The Assad regime cares not an iota for civilian casualties and will cling to Damas­cus until the city resembles Homs or east Aleppo; that is, utterly destroyed.

In any case, Iran would not allow the regime to agree to a negotia­tion process unless it first served Tehran’s interests.

Every week Syria’s political op­position calls on the United States in particular to intervene militarily. A major intervention in both Syria and Iraq would probably destroy ISIS but the consequences would likely create an internecine war for a decade or more — and lots of US troops would die. Though no one likes the idea, Syrians are on their own for now.


Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).


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