There's Only One Way for the Catastrophes in Syria to End, and It's Not Through Violence

Outrage will not bring back Syria's children.

Syrian people in refugee camp in Suruc. These people are refugees from Kobane and escaped because of Islamic state attack. 3.4.2015, Suruc, Turkey.
Photo Credit: Procyk Radek /

Pictures of children, dead and alive, from the embattled city of Aleppo are heartbreaking. Whether it is Omran Dagneesh, who survived Syrian air strikes, or his brother Ali, who died, or Mohamad Tha’er Taher, who was killed by rebel shelling in June, the killing of children continues to rankle the world.

Nobody in this battle has clean hands. The fate of hundreds of thousands of people rests on the brutality of guns. Diplomats until now have been unable to create a peace to save them. 

Bewilderment is the general sensibility among Syria's neighboring countries and in Syria itself. Where is the exit from this madness? Hundreds of thousands of people trapped inside and around Aleppo. Bombs, shells, gunfire—that is the soundtrack for the people of this great city. It has been reduced to this meagerness, this brutality.


Aleppo, for the past few years, has been cut in half – West Aleppo controlled by the government, while East Aleppo is with various rebel groups. Both sides have been hit hard by the violence. The Old City, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the frontline. It is in ruins.

Nothing pains us more than death or injury to children. Images of Aylan Kurdi’s body lying dead on a beach in Turkey rattled large numbers of people. Now comes images of those who remained, for security is not given to these children either in flight or at home. Estimates of the dead suggest that of the half a million killed in this five-year conflict about 50,000 were children.

UNICEF’s chief Anthony Lake watched images of Omran Dagneesh and said, "Empathy is not enough. Outrage is not enough. Empathy and outrage must be matched by action."


But what action is possible? Lake was Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser in the 1990s. It was Lake, with the urging of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright, who proposed a military plan to go after Serbia. Lake and Clinton’s hawkish team pursued a policy of military intervention that culminated in the 1999 NATO bombing and dismemberment of Yugoslavia. Is this the action that Lake would like to see?

What would U.S. or NATO armed action look like in Syria today? Washington insider Dennis Ross (with Andrew Tabler) asked the U.S. to "punish the Syrian government for violating the truce by using drones and cruise missiles to hit the Syrian military’s airfields, bases and artillery positions where no Russian troops are present." The U.N.-brokered truces have held here and there and have been crucial to the delivery of humanitarian goods into many towns. These truces are crucial.

U.N. Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien said recently that if the U.N. cannot secure a truce in Aleppo then the world will witness "humanitarian catastrophe unparalleled in the over five years of bloodshed" in Syria. Ross and Tabler suggest it is Assad’s forces that break the ceasefire and therefore punishment of his assets will secure the ceasefire. But this is not the case at all. Ceasefire violations and inhumane sieges have been general across Syria. The point is not the "red line" for the strike, for the warfare liberals such as Ross have sought several such "red lines" to urge a strike on Syria, whether attacks on civilians, use of chemical weapons or now violations of the truce.

If Assad and the Russians withdrew from the Aleppo battlefield, what would be the outcome? Aleppo would then be overrun by rebel formations. Those with the most muscle, who have demonstrated that they would drive an agenda are the least appealing: the newly renamed al-Qaeda affiliate (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), Turkish and Saudi proxies as well as the Islamic State. Civilian-run groups will be unable to hold off this onslaught.

When the al-Qaeda affiliate – Jabhat al-Nusra – took Idlib last year, it set aside its less militarily powerful allies. In Ma’arat al-Nu’man, other forces tried to assert themselves with protests, but Nusra shut them down. Nusra went to battle against the 13th Division of the Free Syrian Army, just as it had done in southern Idlib against Jamal Marouf and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. None of these groups could withstand the ferocity of Nusra. If the Syrian army withdraws, it is the new incarnation of Nusra that will seize Aleppo. Any expectation that liberal or left forces will be able to assert themselves – given the balance of forces – is dangerously naive.

The sensibility of the dominant rebels is provided by one of its sheikhs, Abdallah al-Muhaysini from Saudi Arabia’s heartland. Al-Muhaysini has recently called for the unity of all fighters under the flag of the new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, anointed by al-Qaeda. His enormous influence is outsized and dangerous. When the group – in its earlier incarnation – seized the Abu al-Duhur Air Base in Idlib, al-Muhaysini was there. He egged the fighters to kill the Syrian army captives (they executed 60 Syrian soldiers). He used harsh, prejudicial words to describe these fighters – Nusairi and Rafida, nasty words used against Alawites and Shiites respectively. This is the tenor of what commands the opposition – Saudi sheikhs with a temperament of poisonous hatred.

Divided Syria

What about the Syrians themselves? Many of those among the liberals and the left who urge Western military intervention assume that Syrian society is easily identifiable – the mass on one side and Assad on the other. But this is a false sense of reality. Syria is deeply divided, not only along lines of sect, ethnicity and class, but also along lines of politics. It is this divided Syria that is not being heard – for what it says is a mirror of the war itself. "Listen to Syrians," goes the refrain. But which Syrians? There is no homogeneous Syrian public opinion; it is fractured. As Syrian economist Omar Dahi told me, "the din of war silences all reasonable voices on all sides."

I ask Dahi about the urgency of action, the need to do something, the call to arms. "All the main sides and their backers should acknowledge there is no military solution," Dahi says. "Not because it isn’t possible or even because the price of victory is too steep, but precisely because the society is divided." Syrians are "unhappy with the choices they have been offered," says Dahi. Calls for further military intervention, he says patiently, are not going to help. They will "further inflame the war and militarization."


Ross and the warfare liberals ignore the ugliness on the ground. For them, Syria is a chessboard. A weaker Assad, they feel, would put more leverage in the hands of the U.S. against the Russians. They see Syria (and Ukraine) as merely the battlefield for a large confrontation with Russia. Such an outlook is narrow and it shows little concern for the terrible situation in the country.

Inside Syria and in its neighborhood the situation is dire. Even Turkey has now come to recognize the uncomfortable reality: namely that a peace process that is as expansive as possible is more important than the immediate defeat of Assad (which was Turkey’s position in 2011). Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has said that Assad’s removal is not a prerequisite for serious talks toward peace. The new relationship between Turkey, Iran and Russia – however fractious – is indicative of the frustration with the stalemate and the dangerous spiral of violence this policy had created. Assad, the Turks say, could have a "transitional" role in the process. As part of this new arrangement, Turkey has also said that it would more forcefully close its border, shutting off supply lines for the rebels. Turkey’s entry into Syria to seize Jarabulus to fight ISIS – with both Western and Russian assent – cements this new direction. It provides Turkey with what it wants – namely to block the creation of a Kurdish enclave – and it puts Turkey directly against ISIS.

What the Russian intervention did was to embolden the Syrian government. Western aerial bombardment against Damascus could no longer happen (Ross and his warfare liberals tried to argue around this, to no avail). With that off the table, the Syrian government and its allies moved to break the siege of government-held West Aleppo from Homs. That battle could not have taken place without the sword of aerial bombardment off its neck. Assad’s armies might have swept up the western edge of Syria, but they are not any more confident now than they were a few years ago. Morale remains low and recruits are not easy to come by. Reinforcements from Iran and Lebanon continue to make the difference in hard-fought encounters with the rebels. Aerial bombardment by Russia has been essential.

Now, if the Turks close their border, the rebels will have a hard time resupplying themselves. It would mean that even an exhausted Syrian army could make gains against the rebels. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states would be able to come to the rescue of their proxies – Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is also at a stalemate. Its enemy there – Abdullah Saleh – has made his own noises about relations with Russia.

What does this mean for the Syrian people? No good news is on the horizon. The fighting will continue. The new rebel platform – anchored by the al-Qaeda affiliate – refuses to come to the table. Pragmatism is not its mood. The Syrian government will continue to batter at East Aleppo and elsewhere, hoping to break the confidence of the Islamist rebels. More blood will be shed and more refugees will try to flee the country. Anthony Lake is right in one respect: outrage will not make this war end. Action is needed. But the question remains: what kind of action?

Syria’s government has shown that it is willing to come into a peace process. Russian and Iranian pressure is essential to ensure that it takes the negotiations seriously. Turkey’s indication that it will now close its border is a very good sign. It means that resupplying of the Islamist rebels – many Turkey’s proxies – will be harder to do. U.N. Resolution 2178 calls upon member states to no longer fund "foreign terrorist fighters," which should put some pressure on countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – from where funds to the Islamist rebels come. The ground is now slowly being set for the U.N. to call for a new dialogue to build on the humanitarian truces. These have been the only effective way to bring relief to a worn-out population and to rebuild trust in a divided society – which is, after all, the basis of peace.


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Vijay Prashad is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is also the author of Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017) and The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016), among other books.