Editorial: A Late, Desperate Stage: On the Syrian Civil War

An article in the July 22, 2019, edition of the Vatican News examined the various ways Pope Francis has responded to the ongoing crisis of the Syrian Civil War. Benedetta Capelli, the author of the article, cited the Holy Father’s many appeals for peace in his public addresses, his visits to refugee communities and his assistance in resettling Syrian families in Italy, and his dialogues with world leaders about the need to secure peace in the region as characteristic of his pastoral approach.

That same day, Vatican News published an item about a letter Francis had delivered to Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin said that the letter called upon Assad to safeguard the civilian population of Syria, preserve infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, allow for the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes, and grant political prisoners humane treatment.

Francis’s letter was inspired in part by renewed conflict in the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, the last rebel-held province in the country. According to the United Nations, violence in the region since April has resulted in over 500 civilian deaths, with over 400,000 people driven from their homes. UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned that the situation in Idlib “has the potential to create the worst humanitarian disaster the world has seen so far this century.”

With so much going on in the world, from trade wars with China to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil to pending anarchy in Britain under the specter of a “no-deal” Brexit, it can be easy to overlook the continuing tragedy in Syria. This is especially true in recent weeks, as we in America have been forced once again to endure the harrowing effects of gun violence: this time, two mass shootings within two days that left 32 people dead and over 50 injured. These shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, came just a week after a gunman opened fire on a crowd at a festival in Gilroy, California, killing three and injuring 13.

And yet, despite this daily churn of negative events, we must resist the temptation to turn our attention away from Syria. In this Pope Francis remains a good example and a source of spiritual leadership. His calls for a “globalization of solidarity,” particularly in regard to migrants and refugees, are an essential counter to the rising tide of anti-immigrant nationalism in both the U.S. and Europe.

The migrant crisis coming out of Syria may reach unprecedented levels as the U.S., Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian government and its opposition groups all vie for position in the Idlib province. Idlib has become the last refuge for people fleeing Syrian government forces after eight years of brutal civil war. It is war that has resisted the U.S. media’s tendency toward easy moralizing: the sheer number of belligerents involved, and the complexity of their cross-purposes, alliances, and conflicting interests, has made it difficult to apply a cut-and-dried, “us-versus-them” narrative. In a 2017 analysis, Richard Beck described it as less a traditional civil war fought between two parties and instead “a series of extravagantly funded proxy wars across two or three separate axes, none of which has any organic connection to the questions of regime tolerance for political assembly and speech that prompted the conflict in the first place.”

Idlib today is a microcosm of the war’s complexity. Its population has swelled to 3 million with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians. This has already created a humanitarian crisis in which new arrivals have no place to go, and are forced to seek shelter under trees and in fields. Amnesty International reports that at least 15 healthcare facilities have been damaged or destroyed throughout the region.

A ceasefire between government and opposition forces in Idlib that was enacted on August 2 lasted less than a week, after the former al-Qaida affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham was accused of violating terms of the agreement. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which the United Nations lists as a terrorist group, controls most of Idlib. Syrian government forces retaliated with airstrikes and shelling of multiple locations, including schools. Civilians are caught between warring parties in an increasingly dense region. The major fear of the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations is that a Syrian government offensive could totally devastate Idlib.

Adding to the confusion, chaos, and sense of desperation are the global powers using Syria as a theater to wield their influence. Russia has backed the Assad government since 2011 and provided direct military aid since 2015. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian jets took part in the retaliation campaign after the end of the August ceasefire. Turkey continues to back various rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, even as Turkey purchased a missile system from Russia in July.

The U.S., meanwhile, has tried to stake out an uneasy place between various factions. It has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a primarily Kurdish antigovernment group, while trying to maintain ties with an anti-Kurdish Turkey. Although they are at odds, both Turkey and the Syrian government have a similar desire to destabilize Kurdish areas in Syria. Turkish and Syrian government forces have burned crops in the predominantly Kurdish Rojava region in the northeastern part of the country.

Things became even more tenuous in early August, when the U.S. agreed to a 285-mile “peace corridor” across northern Syria to be controlled by Turkey. The arrangement staved off a potential Turkish invasion, but leaves the Kurdish population vulnerable. The Syrian government saw the agreement as a violation of its sovereignty.

It is unclear how the U.S. plans to protect the Kurds, who have been its greatest ally in the region. Over 11,000 SDF soldiers have been killed in the fight against ISIS, with thousands more injured. In fact, the U.S. has been so dependent on the Kurdish-led SDF that it is willing to overlook the group’s affinities with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which the U.S. designates a terrorist organization.

In this tangle of political and territorial interests, one noteworthy group is Rojava’s Syrian Democratic Council. This organization is committed to “a pluralistic, multi-ethnic political system” in which power is evenly distributed. According to Debbie Bookchin of the New York Review of Books, the Council’s project “is based on a vision of economic, political, cultural, gender, and educational equality” founded on the “three main pillars” of “women’s rights, ecological awareness, and grassroots democracy.” Its leaders have lobbied the international community for official recognition.

On August 11, Syrian government forces captured the Idlib village of Habeet, opening the way for further encroachment into the region. Of the three million people living in Idlib, half are displaced, and one million are children. The Kurdish people and the Syrian Democratic Council are squeezed between Syrian government forces and Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy, exemplified by the invasion of Afrin in 2018. The Western powers are not without blame: earlier this year it was revealed that at U.S.-led coalition killed 1,600 civilians in the city of Raqqa in 2017.

“The response [to the war] required at this late, desperate stage is neither anti-Assad nor anti-ISIS nor even anti-imperialist,” wrote Beck in 2017. “It is antiwar.” Two years later, Syria remains entrapped in that “late, desperate stage,” with an international response of delay, distraction, and denial—particularly with the plight of refugees. Everywhere violence continues, and the ever-shifting battle lines obscure the most obvious fact: that defenseless civilians, many of them children, are the ones suffering the most. Even a brief study of the tragedy reveals why it is so close to Pope Francis’s heart: These civilians have names, families, and personal histories. They have ties to the land and hopes for their future. They are not created to fulfill someone’s imperialistic, dynastic, or theocratic aims; they are created in the image and likeness of God.

Michael Centore

Editor, Today’s American Catholic

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