Sushil P Seth
The image of a five-year old child sitting on a giant-sized chair after being pulled out from a bombed site in the Syrian city of Aleppo is a defining moment of the madness that has gripped Syria during the last five years of rebellion/civil war in that country. With his dazed face and stunned emotions, he seems to be the living embodiment of a world that has lost its soul. In some ways, it is like the nine-year old girl in the Vietnam War, who came to be known as the “Napalm Girl,” trying to escape American bombing, which so vividly captured the senselessness and cruelty of carpet-bombing of Vietnam by the US war machine. This five-year old kid, like so many others, is the collateral damage, to use an American terminology, of the on-going rebellion/civil war, in Syria.
As in any war or insurgency, there are competing narratives the opposing sides are trying to sell to their own people and the world at large. And this is true of Syria too. For the Bashar al-Assad regime, its opponents of different hues are all undifferentiated terrorists. Indeed, it casts itself in a superior/moral struggle against terrorism, deserving of global support. Therefore, in their propaganda war, which they are waging alongside the real war that is killing people all around, they appear bewildered that the US and its allies are not making a common cause with the Syrian regime. The Russians are obviously buying this narrative and promoting it, and are heavily involved militarily on the regime’s side ever since the Assad regime appeared like it might lose to the rebels.
The US and its Arab allies want Assad regime out, and accordingly, have been helping its enemies with their respective versions of an Islamist replacement. However, the US was never sure of who was who among the rebels that might be worthy of their consistent support to get rid of the Assad family rule. Therefore, their weapons supplies and financial aid to the rebels was cautious subject to wetting of their credentials, which never really worked. But the ‘trusted’ rebels still got enough weapons and related assistance from the US, but some, if not much of it, fell to the jihadi/terrorist version of them. Indeed, according to reports, IS got a good chunk of it through their allied sources. In other words, the Syria policy of the US has lacked conviction because there is no clear alternative to the Assad regime. The removal of Assad regime, though, remains a goal.
Libya is an instructive example where the US and its western allies went all out to get rid of Muammar Gaddafi, and the country is now a mess as a hotbed of feuding fiefdoms, with IS now having an important foothold. Syria, without a properly and assuredly worked out alternative to Assad regime, is likely to be worse. The US is now much more involved against IS in Syria, which is now its main objective. But the main objective of some of its Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia, remains the removal of the Assad dynasty.
Turkey, another US ally, is now engaged militarily against both IS and Syrian Kurds, who also happen to be US’ ally on the ground against IS. In other words, there is lack of political and strategic convergence among those whose broad goal is the removal of the Assad regime. The US is now much more committed to destroying IS.
This is where, superficially at least, there is broad agreement between the US and Russia. Moscow’s interpretation of it, though, includes all ‘terrorist’ networks that would include, more or less, all Assad regime enemies. In this sense, Russian bombardment of rebel-held areas in Aleppo and elsewhere, as part of its strategy to destroy terrorism, is intended to save the regime that had seemed, only a year ago, likely to lose to an array of rebel forces. More recently, when the rebels were making gains to wrest an important supply route, Russians intensified their bombing, using Iranian air bases. Which was a new development because so far, Russian and Iranian intervention on behalf of Damascus, had not involved the use of Iranian territory for Russian sorties. Iran has now backed away from allowing the use of their bases for Russian operations, as they reportedly felt betrayed that Moscow advertised this too loudly for their comfort.
Another new development is the emergence of China to support Assad regime. Politically, in the UN Security Council, China and Russia have been effectively vetoing US-led efforts to create a global action plan against the Damascus regime. But it now seems to be developing into limited cooperation at the military level between Beijing and Damascus. The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, recently reported a meeting between Rear-Admiral Guan Youfei, who heads China’s office for international military cooperation, and Lieutenant-General Fahad Jassem al-Frejj, the Syrian defence minister, in Damascus. It said, “They reached consensus on improved personnel training, and the Chinese military offering humanitarian aid to Syria.” The Global Times newspaper of the ruling Communist Party has reported that Chinese advisers are already on the ground in Syria to train regime forces in the use of Chinese-bought weapons, including sniper rifles, rocket launchers and machine guns.
China’s involvement is unlikely to be on the Russian scale, but reportage in the Chinese media attests to the increasing complexity of the Syrian situation with a wide array of regional and global interests involved. And a reported meeting between the Chinese Admiral Guan and Russian Lieutenant-General Sergei Chvarkov in the context of developments in Syria might also indicate a level of consultation between China and Russia. Russia has been getting deeper into it with its naval ships in the Mediterranean lobbing missiles into the rebel held areas of Aleppo.
In the midst of it all, it is the Syrian people that are suffering the most, even though all the parties involved in the conflict claim that they are actually in it for the people, whoever they might be. But it is not difficult to see that the so-called people are a pawn in a game involving sectarian, political and strategic interests of the concerned parties. And because these interests tend to clash, with no foreseeable prospect of reconciliation, the Syrian tragedy keeps rolling on.