By: Connor Mycroft
This was supposed to be an article about the presidential “debate” that occurred Monday night, but let’s be honest, everyone is already sick of hearing about it. Everyone’s social media feed has been one long running commentary about who won, how they won, what they should do in the next debate, how the polls are looking, how morally reprehensible Trump is (as if we haven’t known that for decades), how deceitful and, shall I say, political Hillary is (go figure).
Conspiracies are abound claiming that Trump’s weird inhalation before he spoke means he’s surely in bad health (or on cocaine), that a lack of unique questions to Hillary means she rigged the debate (or, just maybe, doesn’t have as much questionable conduct as the Alt-Right wants her to), that both candidates have claimed they aren’t going to attend the next debate (because neither of them actually want to win, right?), ad nauseam. Quite frankly, everything that could be said on the matter has already been, and I don’t think there is anything I could add to the conversation you can’t find anywhere else. So instead of contributing to this dumpster fire I am going to shift perspectives to a part of the world that has been lost during this Razzie-worthy performance (hell, it wasn’t even directly mentioned during the debate).
Of course, I am referring to Syria.
Over the weekend I watched a short, 40 minute Netflix documentary on the “White Helmets”, a group of volunteer civilian aid workers operating out of Syria. Largely based out of Aleppo (if you don’t know where that is, go ask Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson), this group of roughly 3000 is the de facto front-line aid service following any airstrikes. Highly coordinated, they arrive on the scene to pull victims, predominantly women and children, from the fresh rubble of homes, hospitals, and other often non-conflict related buildings. Since their establishment in 2013, the White Helmets have saved upwards to 60,000 people, an enormous sum when one considers that they had lost only 140 of their own. They are extraordinary people who have put their past lives on temporary hold so they can alleviate some of the sufferings they endure every day.
Unfortunately, almost as soon as I finished the documentary, I receive a notification on my phone informing me that Assad-allied and Russian forces had carried out almost 200 airstrikes in Aleppo. In doing so, they killed 100 civilians and destroyed 3 out the 4 White Helmet’s HQs in the city. There is no denying that this was a deliberate effort by the Assad government to cripple the White Helmet’s ability to respond to this sort of devastation. Since they operate primarily out of the eastern, rebel-held area of Aleppo, the Assad government views them as an impediment in his quest to regain control of the whole city, despite being an unarmed group and focused specifically on civilian victims (which most often happen to be in the east).
These airstrikes have continued throughout this week, bringing the tally to a staggering 400 deaths, making them some of the most collateral (read: civilian) heavy airstrikes of a 5-year civil war which has now claimed over 400,000 lives. Following the airstrikes, government-allied forces began a ground assault, meaning that the violence, and the casualty list, is only going to worsen in the coming days.
Since Russia began direct military involvement in the Syria one year ago, it’s reported that their airstrikes have killed more than 2700 civilians. This means that Russia has killed more civilians in one year than ISIS has in all 3 years of activity. Although claiming that their involvement was only to aid in abating the March of ISIS and crippling other jihadi extremist groups, it became quickly evident that to the Russians, “extremist groups” meant any force not allied to the Assad regime.
It turns out this definition includes any civilians unfortunate enough to find themselves near any of these rebel-held territories. These airstrikes and bombings have been completely indiscriminate, following a scorched-earth policy of wiping everything, and everyone, out and leaving Assad with a nice layer of ash to rebuild upon. It’s entirely fear driven. Assad wants everyone to know that if you are in rebel-held areas, they will assume you are a rebel and you will die like a rebel. The only way to ensure that you and your family will survive is to wade back into the murky, blood-covered warm embrace of your fearless leader.
The UN Security Council has now accused Russia of possible war crimes for using bunker-buster and incendiary bombs on civilian targets, which is outlawed in international law. There are even accusations claiming that chemical weapons may have been used. In terms of Assad, it’s as if for the past 5 years he’s been trying to commit every Crime Against Humanity in the book. But if there is one thing that this conflict has shown us, it’s that nothing short of a nuclear bomb is enough reason to actually do anything substantive in removing this tyrant.
It wasn’t enough when he ordered his forces to fire indiscriminately into crowds of peaceful protesters at the beginning of the Arab Spring.
It wasn’t enough when it was discovered that protesters were dying from torture and starvation while in prison.
It wasn’t enough when he began barrel-bombing civilian homes and hospitals.
It wasn’t enough when he began using sarin gas and other chemical weapons (which are again, “outlawed”)
It isn’t enough now that most of Syria has been reduced to rubble, and that Assad’s campaign is once again kicking into high gear.
The current argument from the West is that the focus is on ISIS and that once they have been eliminated focus will again return to Assad. Well, that’s a fine notion to entertain until you consider that Russia, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, will veto any attempt at his persecution. In 2014, with the help of China, they blocked a draft resolution that would have granted the International Criminal Court, the super effective institution that it is, jurisdiction over war crimes committed by all sides of the conflict.
And that’s where the problem really lies now, isn’t it? At this point, neither side of this conflict has clean hands. Every rebel group, allied or not, has at one point or another also been accused of similar war crimes, with substantiated evidence. Now don’t mistake me, Russia’s actions are reprehensible, and Assad deserves to be deposed and thrown in the Hague to rot, but We (the royal We here, not us specifically dear reader. Rest easy) have done plenty to fuel this conflict.
For starters, there was an, admittedly, shaky temporary truce in place to allow for the delivery of UN aid until the United States broke it by leading a series of airstrikes of their own that killed dozens of Syrian troops. This gave Assad and the Russians all the leverage necessary to begin their renewed assault on Aleppo. Now, I understand than in the fog of war mistakes happen, but these are simply not the kind of mistakes one can afford.
Due to the renewed hostilities, the UN has been forced to abandon the aid shipments, leaving thousands in an increasingly compromised position with a lack of basic necessities. Back in July, coalition airstrikes killed an estimated 73 civilians, mostly women and children, making it the deadliest coalition attack on non-combatants since the bombing campaign against ISIS started. In less than 6 months our bargaining posture has become highly dubious, and our effectiveness increasingly ridiculed.
But maybe let’s start closer to the beginning. Believe it or not, there was actually a period in time where we had an opportunity to depose Assad very early on, which could have avoided most of this suffering in the first place. In 2012, hardly a year into the conflict (and before it exploded into a full-blown civil war), Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin reportedly approached the other 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council with a proposal that would have had Assad cede power shortly after peace talks began.
That could have been it. Done. Civil war, region-spreading chaos, half a million deaths, maybe even ISIS, avoided. Do you know what came of that proposal? According to the former Finish president Martti Ahtisaari, the US, France, and Britain were so damned convinced he was about to fall like other Arab dictators in the region that they blissfully ignored it.
Once they realized how hilariously wrong they were, the next-best plan they mustered up was to begin funding, arming, and training “moderate Syrian rebel forces”, as if they collectively decided to have selective amnesia and forget all the other times this had definitely worked out (Vietnam, Saddam Hussein against Iran, the Mujahideen against the Soviets, basically all of Latin America).
The thing is, there was a decently organized, sectarian fighting group at the start of the conflict; the Free Syrian Army. However, once it became clear about a year in that the movement was faltering and being co-opted by jihadist elements, their sense legitimacy quickly nosedived. This was when the Obama administration really began the arming/training operations, by the way. So inevitably, most of these arms wound up in the hands of the various extremist groups such as Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda, and gasp even ISIS.
While we’re on the topic of ISIS, I’d like to quickly outline the origins of this group, for the context. So the 2003 Iraq War, generally viewed as a bad move these days. A coalition consisting predominantly of the US and Britain launched a full-scale invasion under flimsy (or fabricated, your pick) evidence, overthrew a dictator, and found themselves stuck in Vietnam 2.0 for the better part of a decade. They removed Saddam, a Sunni, and replaced him with a Shiite government. This government very quickly began enacting anti-Sunni policies to seek revenge on the 40-some years of oppression they had faced under Saddam. During the occupation, the United States decided to use Saddam’s old torture chambers, Abu Ghraib, as one of their main detention facilities.
The predominantly Shiite prisoners were released into the wild, and a new batch of Sunni prisoners was brought in and subsequently became the victims of the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse Scandal. You can imagine how eager they were to become productive members of the new Shiite-dominated Iraq when they were released, so long as they weren’t sent to Gitmo. So,to recap, you have a large, disenfranchised Sunni population (many of whom were formerly members of Saddam’s army or special guard), a highly dysfunctional government that can’t properly secure their borders, Shiite gangs allowed to roam free and abuse Sunnis, plenty of misplaced weapons and munitions, and a civil war in a neighbouring country. Boom. ISIS.
Obama’s plan to train and equip a separate group of hand selected fighters was also a colossal failure. By the the time Obama ended the program, only 5 fighters could be accounted for of the intended 3000 who received training and munitions from US special forces, and where do you think they all went? This program cost an eye-gouging $400 Million, or approximately $130,000 per fighter. By and large, the most effective fighting force has been the Kurds, who after centuries of maltreatment at the hands of others really have nothing left to lose. And sure, now they are an ally, but just wait until this conflict ends and they begin demanding sovereignty across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq from a much higher and better-equipped bargaining position. Hmm, why does this seem so familiar? Is this supposed to be a poem? Is there some rhyme scheme I’m not privy to?
But to be fair, maybe none of this could have been avoided. The 2012 proposal could have quite possibly fallen apart once the two sides realized they wouldn’t be able to compromise. Perhaps whatever transitional government could have been instated would have been just as dysfunctional as Iraq’s or Libya’s, creating the same power vacuum which lead to the rise of ISIS. I mean, the Liberal Internationalists have really found themselves in a shaky position since, well, every attempt they’ve made so far in the 21st Century. I’m no determinist, but maybe this is just the necessary sequence of events that has to occur for Syria to move towards a more inclusive society.
So let’s look at what we’ve got now. We are currently experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II, which is not only destabilizing surrounding Middle Eastern countries, but also allowing ISIS to spread, providing a platform for Far-Right Nationalist parties to bring us back to the 1930’s, revealing the true moral stance of the West, and threatening to unravel the entire European Project. But we can pat ourselves on the back as Canadians. We have welcomed a grand total of 30,000 Syrians into our loving country (after an extensively intrusive, religiously-biased, and possibly sexist vetting process. Nothing like securing those ocean borders, right?). Meanwhile, millions of refugees are stuck in neighbouring Arab countries, hundreds of thousands are stranded and starving between Turkey and Western Europe, and hundreds more are arriving by the boatload per day. But hey, at least we are doing better than our neighboring to the south eh guys?
Do you remember what caused this initial outpouring of concern 4 years into the conflict? Before Trump was the presidential nominee, before Nigel Farage and Brexit, before the sexual assault reports in Cologne, before Munich, before Nice, before Paris, before Belgium, before San Bernadino, there was a washed up body of a child off the coast of Turkey.
At this point, we all recognize the motionless, sand-covered body of Alan Kurdi, and now perhaps you even recognize the dust-and-blood covered face of Omran Daqneesh, but there are thousands of other children who have been victim to this conflict. In fact, Save the Children has estimated that nearly half of the casualties this past week have been children. Any Syrian child under the age of 7 knows one thing, and that’s the civil war. They have been conditioned their entire lives to cower at the faintest sight of an airplane, dodge sniper fire on the way to the market to get food, survive record-breaking winters with nothing but a tent and a fire, and how to cope with the loss of loved ones on a regular basis.
We are currently witnessing the creation of a lost generation of children with no education other than war-time survival and how to sell cheap garments in refugee camps for food. The longer this conflict continues, the harder it is going to be to be for these children to properly reconstitute themselves back (or for the first time) into the greater society. I can’t even fathom the amount of trauma services that would be required to properly care for them. I can only imagine it won’t be enough.
Don’t they at least deserve a better future than the present they were provided?
Until our International Community can get it’s collective shit together, there is going to be more destruction, more death, more festering extremism, more refugees, and more dead children washing up on beaches. And when this conflict meets its eventual end, there will be Assad, sitting on his throne of rubble built atop every decomposing Syrian, laughing while staring down a humiliated, discredited United Nations.