Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Should Syrians be thankful to Trump for last week's airstrikes against the Assad regime?

Malak Chabkoun

 Malak Chabkoun:
 [Apr 11, 2017]
 'What I'd like to start out with is a disclaimer: I don't represent everyone who is against Assad and ISIS, and I do hope that my perspective is wrong, and this is the beginning of the end of Assad. But I have to say, I understand the people who felt a glimmer of hope after the strike. I can't fault them for that. A lot of them have lost their families, their friends, their homes, just for Assad to keep his seat. You have to note though, that even those who express hope, or they express happiness, at these strikes, and I'm talking about interviews with Syrians inside of Syria, a lot of them said that this would never be enough to get rid of this régime. They were hopeful, but they knew that this was just the start.

 I also have to say that I don't share the sentiment of the anti-war groups in the US and Europe, who for some reason seem to have woken up just now after the US bombed a régime airbase. I have to ask myself, where have these people been for the last six years? Where have they been as the US-led coalition bombed civilians to death, not only in Syria, but also in Iraq, in the name of fighting ISIS? Where have they been as the US supported groups in Syria, logistically and with boots on the ground, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, and that group is accused of human rights violations against Syrian civilians? And why haven't these people protested Russian intervention and Iranian intervention in Syria, as strongly as they are protesting this unilateral single strike on a military base?

 I'm not optimistic about these strikes on the Shayrat airbase. I'm not optimistic at all, to be honest. I don't want to thank Trump for this crumb that he's thrown to the Syrian people. First, he needs to realise, as do others in his administration - I mean if you saw the Sean Spicer press conference yesterday, it was clear that there is confusion in the Trump administration about exactly what is happening in Syria, and what is happening to the Syrian people. Syrians are not just being killed by chemical strikes. As we speak now, 50,000 people or so in a town in the countryside of Damascus called Barzeh, are facing starvation, by the Assad régime. The Assad government is bombing them from the air, and preventing all food and medical supplies from reaching them. In 2016 alone, more than 10,000 people were arbitrarily arrested by this same régime. Also, the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, the attack said to have prompted Trump's unilateral strike, is not the first chemical attack that has taken place under his administration.

 I'm not going to go into all the chemical attacks that happened under Obama, even after his red line was drawn in 2013. There was an attack on Harasta, which is a town also in the countryside of Damascus, which mainly affected women and children, in which chlorine gas was used. Another attack on Latamneh, which is in Hama, on 25th March. Also chlorine gas was used. Civil society groups in that area actually tested the contents of the barrel bomb that was dropped, and it was indeed chlorine gas. And the intensity of attacks by both Assad and his Russian allies have not been affected. I mean, since that strike on the airbase, 13 people were killed on the next day, by Russia and the régime. Yesterday, on April 10th, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented at least 11 people killed, civilians, killed by Assad and Russia. And since that strike also, white phosphorous and napalm have been used in attacks against civilians. So it seems the Assad régime and Russia are not deterred by this one-off strike.

 When we're talking about the opposition, there's the armed opposition, there is what you could call the civil society part of the opposition, there is the political opposition, some of which is truly an opposition, in exile from Syria, some of which is like what you would have to say is an opposition allowed by the régime, so the régime is OK with that kind of opposition. So, of course, talking about the opposition which is really against Bashar al-Assad, I think that those members of the opposition are suspicious of Trump and Russia's respective endgames in Syria. They've made that clear through their remarks, in public, after the attacks. They know that this could just be a one-time thing, particularly given the Trump administration's actions and policies so far, but if this is ignored, we face a very undesirable transition when Assad is ultimately removed. Because I think that at this point in time, Russia and Trump are still friends. Sean Spicer said yesterday that he considers Russia an ally, or the US considers Russia an ally. So I think that their alliance will be stronger than any push for justice in Syria, and it's stronger than their attachment to Assad.

 So there are a couple of possible scenarios here, and unfortunately I don't see any taking into account what in my opinion is the most important part of the Syrian opposition, and that's the civil society of Syria. The opposition right now has to keep that in mind. In a lot of places where the régime is no longer there, the areas that we call liberated areas; electricity, water, trash pick up, educational services, health services, and so on, are actually being provided by this civil society opposition. Initiatives that these members of civil society took in order to provide services that were no longer there, because the régime is not there. They have to work around the other groups in the liberated areas, but they are doing the heavy lifting. The opposition that is negotiating on behalf of the Syrian people must recognise that Trump and Russia and Assad do not have the best interests of these people at heart. This could result in a partition of Syria or worse.

 Since this strike happened, Trump, his administration, and even members of his family, have been using it as so-called "evidence" that there is no improper or otherwise relationship between Trump and Putin. And so it's quite upsetting as a Syrian-American to watch how this strike is being used for Trump's own popularity at home.

 As an observer, I don't know if I can say if Obama's Syria plan was completely comprehensive, but I'll say that it was aimed at something else, it was a so-called comprehensive plan to take out the Islamic State group, and it wasn't aimed at taking out Assad. I think that's a very important distinction to make. Obama is at fault for a lot of the missteps in the US' Syria policy, but I have to say that the international community has not had this idea of removing Assad from Syria on the table for a long time. The idea of régime change was kind of pushed to the side; particularly since 2014, it's been a comprehensive Take Out Daesh policy. It's been an international community very focused on the idea of the Islamic State group, on whether it's growing in Syria, growing in Iraq, how they can rid of it. It's been a largely airstrike campaign against the group in many cases.

 Obama is not the only one who was complicit in this tiptoeing around Assad atrocities, and giving speeches about liberty in the Middle East or the Arab world without ever really doing anything about it. The UN, over and over, has covered up the régime's crimes. There is evidence of this, they have actively aided the régime in crimes against civilians, for example in many areas of Syria people were forced to leave their homes. Forced displacement or forced migration is considered a war crime. Instead of truly punishing the régime for the rounds of this forced displacement, the UN is often right there as a facilitator for this process. 

 And then, lest we just blame Obama, there are also the Arab states, particularly the Gulf states that have been more vocal about this. Rather than insisting on Assad's removal before participating in this international coalition to take out Daesh, they let the US push around their own policy. At the forefront they had all made the statement that yes, the Syrian people deserve freedom from Assad, they deserve freedom from dictatorship, but when the US gave them the signal that the Islamic State removal was more important to them, they all kind of followed suit. So, to be honest, let's not just put this on the US. If there isn't an international and comprehensive approach that fulfils the approach of first removing Assad, and then second forming an acceptable transitional government, one that is based on the needs of the civil society that has already paid so much, not just fighting against the régime, but also fighting against other groups that have popped up to take away their freedom, like ISIS, like al-Qaeda in Syria; then these non-comprehensive approaches are going to fail again and again. 

 We have another example. Russia, awhile back, tried to propose a new constitution for Syria. Well, I'm sorry, Russia shouldn't be writing a constitution for Syria. Syrians could be doing that for themselves. At the end of the day, peace cannot come in Syria from people who really do not value this idea of freedom, whether they are Arab, or they're Western. I can't expect a country that does not value freedom, or where the leaders don't value freedom -I won't say the country because the people are different from their leaders - how can we expect them to implement any sort of justice in Syria?

 Syrian voices are constantly trampled on. Syrian civil society has been very active, and has been very vocal. Unfortunately, their voices and their narratives are often trampled upon. Like the simplest things. Media outlets continue to call it a civil war, taking away the value of the idea that there was a revolution in Syria, and in many places, there continues to be, on a smaller scale, revolution in Syria. And so not acknowledging their narratives, the people living inside of Syria, and their needs and their wants, is then problematic. And they're not giving that narrative back. The international community needs to help, the media needs to help with that, you need to listen to Syrians, that's all I'm trying to say.'

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