Can You Confront the Death Toll in Syria?


Syria remains an open sore. Inside Syria, the war continues. Death tolls have long become meaningless. Estimates range towards half a million dead, half the population displaced and life expectancy down by 15 years. News of this massacre and that has now faded from the imagination of people who do not live in the region. The fate of the Syrian people has now entered a register that includes that of the Iraqis and the Afghans. Death is their lot, it seems. Eighty dead in a suicide attack in Kabul barely makes the headlines. It would take more to shake the Western audience: more dead, more gruesomely killed.

Where Syria becomes of interest is when the detritus of that war sweeps through the West: a butchering in Normandy, a truck battering through Nice, a machete attack in Reutlingen. This is when Syria comes to Europe, either through the frustrations of a deranged refugee or the fantasies of an alienated thug. There was a time when Western intelligence tried to encourage these thugs to go off to Syria and fight in the war against Assad. One of the reasons Belgium sent the highest per capita fighters to Syria in the early years of the war was because its intelligence services had no problem emptying out Molenbeek of its drug dealers and toughs. As the United States started to bomb Islamic State positions, these men hastened back home. If the Afghan Arabs had left their mountain positions in the 1990s to build Al-Qaeda and attack their homelands, these Syrian Europeans returned home to do their own kind of damage.

Wars are ugly. They destroy countries. No one comes off as angelic. The Syrian government advances toward Aleppo, bombing from the sky to open a path into the city. A car bomb goes off in Damascus, just after a mortar attack hit a restaurant in the district of Bab Touma. U.S. fighter planes hit civilians in Manjib, killing as many as 125 civilians. An Islamic State bombing in Qamishli kills 14 people as it battles Kurdish forces near the Turkish border. The map of the war is as complex as it was a year ago. The violence has not clarified anything. Gains are being made here and there for this side and that, but there is no significant path to an easy victory.

Sniffs toward the International Criminal Court with allegations of war crimes have now been silenced. That was the path for the regime change operation in Libya. The West tried to do that in Syria in the early years, calling for Bashar al-Assad to go, and using the threat of the ICC investigation to scare him into exile. But the Russian intervention last year stayed the hand of the advocates of regime change. It is no longer on the cards. Syria suffers from a death by a thousand cuts. No one wants to entertain an investigation into the brutalities of war—neither for the acts of the Syrian government nor for the U.S. bombings (such as at Manjib) or the Russian bombings. There is a complicity of silence here.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of civilians live under siege, held hostage by the rebels and garrisoned by the government. Starvation is their horizon. Aleppo is the most vulnerable. The government has used its siege tactics as a method in the war. The Syrian military has warned the rebels of Aleppo that it will tighten the siege on 300,000 people as a method to force the rebels to depart from the city. Food will run out in August. Medical supplies shortly afterward. Sixty percent of hospitals in Syria are now closed or non-functional. Aleppo barely has any medical infrastructure. The cautious advance by the Syrian army into Aleppo could halt at any time. It has stopped before. This means that starvation will linger on, poisoning the possibility of any reconciliation. Winning a war cannot be the only goal. It is difficult to fight a war in order to win the peace.

The U.N.-brokered peace process will restart in August. In Geneva, the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said that progress was urgent. He hoped that the U.S. and the Russians would work out the parameters for the talks, making clear it was their agreement that would put pressure again on the Syrian factions to return to the table. Evidence for an intra-Syrian dialogue remains low. Trust is hard to reconstruct. De Mistura has said the same kinds of things since he took the office. He repeats his predecessors, Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan. Neither could move an agenda. But matters a little more hopeful now, with the entente between the Russians and the United States able to lessen the pressure for a total victory in the country.

Chaos in the region feeds into the failure—for instance, can Turkey, now torn by its own internal crisis, control its proxies? What will be the state of the Turkish border, which is the conduit for fighters and logistics to enter the region of the Islamic State? The commander of Turkey’s Second Army, with responsibility for guarding the Syrian frontier, is now in prison. So too are a number of his deputies. Turkey’s new relationship with Russia has sown anxiety among its proxies, who see themselves as disposable as the geopolitical alliances shift. Syrian rebel leadership in Istanbul does not believe that Turkey will give them the kind of robust support it had given in the early years of the war. This means that support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the other emirates will not be so easy to manage, since it was largely through Turkey that these funds and goods came into the hands of the rebels.

Meanwhile, in the southern front of the rebellion, Israel has indicated that it would like to create a "safe zone"—taking control of more parts of Syrian territory. Journalist Nour Samaha spoke with Kamal Al-Labwani, a Syrian rebel leader, who said he favors this arrangement. This part of Syria is now home to fourteen brigades, including the Free Syrian Army, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State affiliate Shuhada al-Yarmouk. "None of these groups have a problem with Israel," Labwani told Samaha, "and Israel doesn’t have a problem with them either." It is unlikely that Israel will be able to take over Turkey’s role here, being the main conduit to the rebels. The Syrian war has not yet spilled fully into Israeli held-territory, including the illegally occupied Golan Heights. If Israel does become the pipeline for the rebels, it is unlikely that it can insulate itself from the kind of mayhem already inflicting Turkey.

Inside Syria, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has decided to split from al-Qaeda. It will now be known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the Syrian Liberation Front). It wants to be seen in the West and amongst the Gulf states as the most promising rebel front against the Damascus government. That Jabhat al-Nusra was a creation of the Islamic State in 2012 and that it has long had affinity to al-Qaeda will make this kind of disassociation hard to accept. Nonetheless, it is already clear on the ground that the West, the Gulf Arabs and the Israelis treat Jabhat al-Nusra as a "moderate" force when set beside the Islamic State. It is an impossible standard, familiar to those who followed the Afghan War of the 1980s and '90s when the West and the Gulf Arabs anointed what was to become Al-Qaeda as a viable force against the Afghan communists and the Soviet Union. To acknowledge Jabhat al-Nusra as a moderate force will set back the dial for the peace process. It will not be accepted by Damascus, nor by Russia and Iran.

The status of Jabhat al-Nusra has confounded the previous U.N.-brokered peace. Damascus saw Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group and wanted to allow its Russian allies to pound it from the air. The West was reticent, but could not make the case that an Al-Qaeda affiliate is not a terrorist organization. Jabhat al-Nusra has cleverly made alliances with the web of rebel groups along the western edge of Syria. This knit it into the fabric of the rebellion. But this also compromises the West’s ability to carve out its own moderate allies and it allows the Syrian government license to bomb any rebel group (since they will likely to linked to Jabhat al-Nusra). Clarity on Jabhat al-Nusra’s status will not come by its own disassociation from al-Qaeda. That will be viewed with suspicion in Damascus.

The U.N.’s de Mistura wants the peace talks to reopen "tomorrow, the sooner the better." John Kerry (U.S.) and Sergey Lavrov (Russia) met and said what they have been saying for the better part of a year—that there needs to be a peace process. None of this is cause for optimism. The sounds of mortar fire and shells are the soundtrack of Syria’s continued destruction.

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