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CENTRE OF UPHEAVAL

The heaviest price for the regional and extra-regional intervention in the civil war in Syria has, of course, been borne by the Syrian people and nation. One hundred and thirty thousand Syrian lives have been lost so far, millions have become internally displaced and refugees, the country’s precious cultural heritage has been vandalized and perhaps rendered beyond repair and its infrastructure destroyed. The scars left by the atrocities committed by both sides will be felt for generations; it is doubtful if the Syrian people will be able, ever, to live free of suspicions of one another, with the sectarian divide likely to last for decades. A huge price to pay, all in the name of democracy. (It is said that the price for democracy in Iraq was nearly a million lives.)

Syria’s neighbours are paying, and will pay for years, a heavy price for their interference in Syria to gain short-sighted objectives. They are all bearing the burden of having to shelter large numbers of Syrian refugees. The international community might offer monetary assistance, never adequate, but the societal damage caused by the Syrian upheaval to the neighbours is incalculable. Jordan, at the best of times, was precariously stable; its monarch always had to play a balancing act between the ‘sons of the soil’ and the immigrant Palestinian community which outnumbers the indigenous people. The influx from Syria, which undoubtedly includes many extremist elements, will seriously threaten the stability of the kingdom. Lebanon, ever a ripe case for civil war, is deeply involved in the Syrian quagmire, with the Hizbullah openly and effectively fighting on the side of the Bashar al-Assad government. Iraq, which has not enjoyed even one day’s peace for the past 11 years, except perhaps for the Kurdistan region, is so deeply involved in the Syrian situation that it has become customary to speak of the two countries forming a single theatre of civil war.

In many ways, the country that has suffered the most is Turkey. Just a short three years ago, Turkey was the envy of the region. It was the model that other countries in the broader region aspired to follow. Its economy was booming, it enjoyed stability and its government earned kudos for clipping the wings of its armed forces, thus asserting the supremacy of the civilian authorities. The government used the Palestinian card to increase public support at home as well as to gradually implement its Islamic agenda.

All that looks like distant memory at present. Its Syria policy is unpopular domestically; it has rekindled the Kurdish problem which the Syrian government is openly exploiting, its Alawite population is sympathetic to its Syrian co-religionists, it has become just a part of the Sunni coalition in the civil war, its economy is hovering at just over 2 per cent growth and the people are fiercely protesting against plans they perceive as eroding Turkey’s secular traditions. Its support for the Muslim Brotherhood has brought its relations with Egypt to breaking point.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, thus far, have been paying the price in terms of financial resources — cash and arms. The internal stability in these countries does not seem to have been affected by their intervention in Syria. However, Saudi-American relations have worsened because of, inter alia, differences on the Syrian situation. The Saudis were frustrated by Barack Obama’s caving in to the Russian initiative on Syria’s chemical weapons and are equally frustrated by America’s reluctance to send, or to encourage Saudi Arabia to send, more lethal weapons to the rebels. Saudi-Qatar relations have recently taken a hit because of the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood which the former has formally banned.

While the regional states have their own reasons, overwhelmingly sectarian, for wanting to get rid of the Assad regime, Israel and the Western states, primarily the United States of America, have joined the fray to weaken Iran’s influence in the region. When the Arab Spring first broke, it seemed like a great opportunity for Israel and the US, to ride on it to bring about Assad’s ouster through ‘popular’ protests. Breaking the Tehran-Damascus axis would be a huge gain for Israel; it would weaken Iran’s influence, debilitate the Hizbullah and would negatively impact on Hamas. It might even erode Iran’s bargaining position on the nuclear issue. But this short-sighted policy not only has failed disastrously; it has generated an army of battle-trained fighters, thousands of them, who will go back to their countries of origin in western Europe and create havoc there, as and when the tragic civil war in Syria concludes. This is the price the West will pay, the prospect of which they are already dreading.

The West is also under the dilemma of what further to do in Syria. The Assad regime, by all accounts now, will not only survive but has actually improved its military position. One answer, preferred by the Saudis, Turkey and Qatar, is to help the rebels with more effective military means to counter the regime’s superiority, but that means, in effect, strengthening the extremists who are openly aligned with al Qaida. The prospect of radicals seizing power in Damascus has scared not only the West and Israel, but also Saudis. It is widely known that 90 per cent of the guerrillas of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, numbering over 10,000, consist of citizens of Western countries, with only about 10 per cent being Syrians.

The two net gainers are Russia and Iran. Syria has enabled Vladimir Putin to make Russia once again an influential player in the Middle East. The only ‘cost’ which Putin is paying is some negative comments in the Western media and capitals for supporting an ‘anti-humanitarian ‘ regime. The Syrian tangle cannot be resolved without Iran’s involvement. Iran has the capability to influence the course of events positively as well as negatively. Failure to unseat Assad will enhance Iran’s prestige, just as the successful secession by Crimea from Ukraine will enhance Russia’s.

The civil war in Syria is likely to last many more years. (The Lebanese civil war lasted over 14 years.) Should the international community be worried? Yes, certainly, on humanitarian grounds. Hence, its priority is reaching assistance to the affected communities, also because it is comparatively easy to obtain agreement on this. What we are witnessing in Syria is a deadly sectarian struggle between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islamic ummah, a struggle which was reignited by the American intervention in Iraq in 2003. Both sides are playing for very high stakes and will continue to bet on their respective combatants for a long time.

It has been suggested that India and China are the only two countries with the requisite credibility and credentials to work to bring the parties together and make an effort to reconcile them. One cannot speak for China, but India would be well advised not to get involved in the extremely volatile and emotional imbroglio. India offers a good example of different communities living in relative peace and harmony. Our Muslim community is well integrated into the mainstream. We do not have a Shia-Sunni problem. Any attempt on our part to ‘solve’ the Syrian situation will invariably drag us into the sectarian struggle. We can think of offering our good offices only if and when the warring parties approach us for help. For the moment, let those who started the whole crisis continue to handle it the best they can. Our help should be limited to sending medicines and other humanitarian assistance.