In the international community, a cadre has long hoped that the Syrian conflict would reach a stalemate. The parties would then be open to a negotiated settlement, and large-scale violence would cease.
There has been no slowing down. Syria’s army, the Free Syrian Army, the fundamentalists, the Kurds, and all the other groups trying to survive are not out of will and fight.
Assad’s regime continues to get heavy weapons from Russia, while the Islamic State is now making huge sums from the oil fields it has captured. As long as the various factions have the money and arms to sustain a struggle, the idea of a lasting peace seems absurd.
One of the big recent stories about the Syrian conflict is new primary evidence of mass detention, torture, and killing of people by the Assad regime. A formal report by war crimes prosecutors with graphic pictures is available here (PDF). Regarding a defector who had been tasked with documentation of it all (alias “Caesar”) Der Spiegel reported:
Caesar provided his testimony and photographic evidence to lawyers and forensic experts at a British law firm. Together, says Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, the defector’s evidence shows the “industrial scale” of the killing perpetrated by the Syrian regime. In addition, the photos provide a horrifying explanation for what might have happened to the 50,000 or more missing people in Syria — those who were abducted by the regime of the course of the past two years. They are not included in the casualty figures, which assume a total of some 130,000 killed in the civil war. But prior to last week, there had been no clear indication as to where they might be.
Later discussing a campaign in early 2012 in Homs:
Beginning in February 2012, thousands of Homs residents disappeared in the wake of the 4th Division’s attack on the rebellious quarters of the city. Whether the victims belonged to the opposition or not was irrelevant for the subsequent death sentences — the wrong address was often enough. But the men whose corpses the soldier and the military doctor later saw in the inner courtyard of the Homs military hospital did not yet show indications of systemic starvation, as is evident in many of the images provided by Caesar.
Of course, there is an obvious question- if you’re doing barbaric, illegal killing campaigns on your own people, why leave a trail of evidence? One person defects and they have tens of thousands of photos indicting the regime. The defector has a chilling answer:
Why would a regime, which kills thousands of its own citizens, collects them in a discrete location and buries them in hidden mass graves, photograph and number the dead?
Caesar says that one reason is so that death certificates could be issued. But why document bullet holes and signs of strangulation given the interest in concealing the true cause of death? The second reason mentioned by Caesar seems more important. The regime wanted to make a record of which security service was responsible for what death, he said according to the report. A kind of performance report for brutality.
All of this is horrifying- and a key thing that third parties have to do in these cases is to continue to be horrified. All aspects of the Syrian conflict are terrible- the shooting of unarmed protestors, the shelling of civilian centers, the millions of refugees fleeing to countries that want nothing to do with them, the civil wars among the “rebels” themselves, the use of violence to make religious and political statements.
It makes sense to become acclimated, to see this as just more torture, more murder, more war. But that is an injustice to those that suffer and die. Be horrified, be disgusted. It’s how things get changed. Why do politicians get nudged towards action? How do groups like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross get the funding they need? People are disgusted. They spend time and money to react to that. And it can do a great deal of good.
The announcement comes on the heels of battle successes against Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), among the most powerful of the myriad homegrown and foreign forces fighting the Assad regime.
Since the latest fighting between the Syrian Kurds and Al Qaeda affiliates broke out in July, the dominant Kurdish organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has used its battle successes to burnish its image among Kurds and consolidate its hold over the region.
With a population of somewhere between 30 and 40 million, the Kurds are among the largest people to not have their own sovereign state. Saddam Hussein launched a bloody campaign against the Kurds in the northern portion of Iraq, after they sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War that lasted through most of the 1980s. Towards the end of the conflict in 1988 a large-scale gas attack killed several thousand people. A large number of Kurds also live in southern Turkey, where the far-left Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fought a long conflict for independence, which stopped earlier this year after a unilateral ceasefire (though the conflict may get hot again, over Syria). The PYD draws a lot of support from the PKK, and a lot of material support from the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, which has a relative level of stability and economic prosperity.
How groups create and reinforce their identity, and through that their claims to political autonomy or independence, fascinates me. And the situation of the Kurds is interesting- a very large amount of people forming important minorities in several separate countries. They form a third side in Syria, between anti-Assad and pro-Assad coalitions, but it doesn’t quite sync up. Mostly, the Kurds want control over the regions they inhabit, and thus don’t share the goal of keeping or removing Assad from power. By fighting ISIS and hardline Sunni militants, they are helping the Shite Assad in his campaign to defeat moderate and extreme rebel factions. However, at some point the politics of the region boil down to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Moderate rebels may fear or despise the al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters, but their mutual hatred of of the ruling regime always encourages cooperation as much as division. Kurds may be ambivalent to Assad, but need support to keep their territory together and keep connections to other groups in other countries open.
A couple months ago, when Western intervention seemed obvious, I attempted to draw a diagram of all the nations, governments, factions, militias, and coalitions in the Syrian conflict. Ultimately my piece of paper was a complete mess- and I know I left out a bunch of key and secondary players. The conflict is being fought until one or more sides is ground into dust, and the desperation brings an aggressive, merciless politics along with it.
In some ways, this is just the latest chapter in the Kurdish story- one of conflict and separation that predates the Syrian civil war by a long, long long time.
“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
All parties accept that the situation in Syria is deeply complicated. On one side (which I guess would be the group against the pre-war status quo) there continue to be non-violent protestors against Assad. They are mixed in rebel-held areas with Sunni militias supported by Qatar and perhaps Saudi Arabia, and radical forces of mostly foreign extraction like al-Nusra that want a Sunni state at the expense of moderates and other religious groups.
This contrasts with an Assad regime supported by (and protecting) the relatively small Allawite Shite minority. They are given strong support from Hezbollah and thus considerable support from Iran. They also get large amounts of sophisticated weapons from Russia.
This is not even going into the Kurds and their involvement in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey as a NATO nation dealing with a refugee issues, whether escalation could lead to strikes inside the borders of Israel. Many other countries in the region have been supporting one side or the other, or tried to be neutral (Lebanon) but failed or had to deal with the massive refugee crisis which will not end anytime soon.
So when U.S military intervention shows up, remember that any solution to a complex crisis that is neat, elegant, plausible also has another attribute- it’s totally wrong.