No ‘mission accomplished’ in Syria

opinion December 13, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Putin seems to think it’s all over for ISIS, yet peace remains a long way off



Russian President Vladimir Putin this week ordered his country’s armed forces to begin withdrawing from Syria, saying their mission – to destroy the terrorist group ISIS – was now completed. “I order the defence minister and the chief of general staff to start withdrawing the Russian group of troops to their permanent bases,” Putin was quoted as saying by news agency RIA Novosti.

But, just as notably, he left open the option to return soldiers to Syria, saying, “If terrorists raise their heads again” Russia would “carry out such strikes on them as they have never seen.” Meanwhile Syria’s Khmeimim airbase, from which Russian jets operated, and the naval facility it used will remain in business.

Putin’s claim of “mission accomplished” has baffled observers. There is no peaceful settlement in sight in the conflict with the militant jihadis. The number of attacks and other violent incidents might have decreased thanks to Russia’s intervention and assistance to the regime of Bashir al-Assad, but there is hardly justification for trumpeting a victory. 

It would be absurd to believe this wearying slaughter, which stemmed from the so-called Arab Spring of 2010, could simple dwindle to nothing. Even denied urban strongholds as bases for insurgent operations, ISIS remains quite capable of engaging the Syrian regime and causing mayhem.

The scope of human history amply demonstrates that victory is not written in the blood of innocent civilians. In Syria yet again, however, far too many innocents have died and left their blood on Assad’s hands for anyone to entertain thoughts of a sustainable peace being brokered, let alone reconciliation being achieved. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and an estimated one million children orphaned. One out of every four civilians killed in 2016 was under the age of 18, according to Brussels-based Lancet Global Health. Civilian fatalities accounted for 71 per cent of the 144,000 deaths in the first six years of the civil war.

The Syrian government and its foreign partners have almost from the start kept the emphasis on aerial bombardment to punish the insurgents, especially in urban areas, and the result has been “a disproportionate lethal impact on civilians, particularly children”, the periodical reported. In the first two years of the war, children represented about 9 per cent of the victims. Since 2013, that percentage has more than doubled. 

What such numbers tell us is that there is scant respect for the accepted rules of engagement in warfare. It could well be that war crimes have been committed and international humanitarian law violated. For the rebels fighting Assad’s regime, the death toll goes beyond mere numbers. They are determined to ensure that those innocent civilians did not die in vain. To them, democracy and freedom are not dreams, but inalienable rights that must be secured, by force if necessary. Life spent on the edge between Assad’s oppressive brutality and Islamic State fanaticism is no life at all. 

The genuine declaration of victory in Syria awaits the establishment of democracy, and that cannot be achieved without the international community’s help. A resolution that’s fair to all must be negotiated. The Syrian people must be permitted to choose their own leader. They certainly deserve better than Assad.