Commentary

No End in Sight for Suffering in Syria

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

Regional dailies and political observers continue to dedicate a considerable amount of attention to the ongoing suffering in Syria, particularly in the besieged city of Aleppo. Reasons suggested for the brutality of the Syrian government and its Russian airpower differ, with some looking to history and others to great-power politics. Notwithstanding the concern some express over the possibility of an armed confrontation between the United States and Russia, there is almost universal condemnation in the regional media over perceived U.S. inaction. Some commentators hold out hope for a U.S.-Russia deal at the UN aimed at eliminating Islamist terrorist groups, but few are under any illusion that such cooperation will be forthcoming.

Saudi Gazette’s Hussein Shobokshi suggests that Assad’s bombing of Aleppo is born out of a feeling of revenge against a city with a proud past and an independent streak: “Aleppo was like an independent emirate before the modern Syria was formed and therefore the sense of being an independent city was the reason for Assad’s family to invade it....Aleppo’s systematic extermination under the regime of father and son and their unclean accomplices is revenge on Aleppo as a result of their old jealousy. Aleppo had revolted against the regime of Assad in the past and an attack on the military college prompted Hafez Assad, the father, to deny the city all the projects and deprive its people of all positions. Aleppo paid for it dearly and today it is paying more at the hands of Hafez’s criminal son Bashar. The burning Aleppo will recover from its pain and it will rebuild itself from ruins but Bashar Al-Assad’s fate will be consigned to the dustbin of history.”

Even though one detects in Shobokshi’s message a feeling of hope for a better day for the city and its residents, no such silver lining is to be found in a recent op-ed by Arab News’s Eyad Abu Shakra, who blames the current situation in Aleppo on U.S. hesitancy: “Although Syria’s tragedy is too painful to be associated with humor, the suffering that both Moscow and Washington are inflicting on the Syrian people reminds us of a kind of a ‘black comedy’ joke....It is such an ugly and surreal picture that not only proves the moral bankruptcy of international politics, but also points to the fact that the Arab world is facing a catastrophe, and the so-called ‘war against terrorism’ is being conducted in a preposterous manner that intentionally ignores the root causes of the problem.....Thus, concentrating efforts exclusively on ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front while disregarding the overall regional military, political, ethnic as well as religious and sectarian complexities, will only lead to temporary ‘solutions.’ These serve an American administration that has gained a great expertise in leaving to its successors all the consequences of its failures and short-term interests, as well as a dictatorial Russian leadership that cares little about human rights, civil society, democracy and global interaction.”

In a recent editorial, however, the Jordan Times worries that the current upheaval in the region could lead to a great power conflict between the United States and Russia: “With Moscow deciding to increase its military involvement in Syria and establish a permanent military base in the country, tension between it and Washington can be expected to increase, hopefully not to crisis level. The world has plenty of those and could ill afford one at this plane....Putin is in a determined, one could say aggressive, mood, with some attributing his behavior to Russia’s perception that the West, generally, and NATO in particular, is encroaching on territories hitherto under Russian sphere of influence, including, of course, Ukraine....The world powers should dampen down the muscle flexing and try, instead, to find a common denominator that could serve as a basis for improved relations between them.  Moscow and Washington should show statesmanship and not allow their differences to escalate to unpredictable levels.”

On the other hand, David Singer suggests in an op-ed for the Israeli daily Arutz Sheva that with the Russians in charge of the rotating UN Security Council Presidency, we could see a concerted effort on the part of both Russia and the U.S. to “confront Islamic State and Al-Nusra…. Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin’s assumption of the Presidency of the United Nations Security Council for October could have a lightning rod effect on the Security Council finally authorizing military action against Islamic State and Al Nusra under article 42 of the UN Charter....Churkin has been afforded a world stage to justify Russia’s actions in Syria during regular media conferences that will be held by him as President of the Security Council....Both Russia and America have previously expressed their willingness to involve the Security Council in defeating Islamic State and al-Nusra....Given the commonality of the positions of both America and Russia as reflected above – the possibility looms large that during Russia’s October presidency of the Security Council - Russia and America could co-sponsor a draft resolution to the Security Council authorizing military action against Islamic State and al-Nusra.”

Of course, the United States and Russia are not the only countries with interests in the region, and as Murat Yetkin reminds us in his Hurriyet Daily News column, the Turkish president has his own designs for the region: “The rift [between Turkey and the United States] could escalate to such dimensions that Syria (which in effect means Russia) could close its airspace to U.S.-led coalition flights, also carried out from Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base. That would mean an end to U.S. ops in Syrian air space without confronting Russia. Russia wants to maintain and strengthen its military position in Syria, which now hosts its only base in the entire Middle East and East Mediterranean....The U.S. and Russia are in the midst of a serious rift in Syria and Iraq on the Aleppo-Mosul line, along the Turkish border, in a region where neither of them really belong....Under other circumstances, Turkey might have reacted against what Russia is currently doing in Aleppo fiercely. For now both Erdoğan and Putin are separating politics from trade. It will certainly be interesting to watch the U.S.’s next move.”

According to The National’s Hassan Hassan, the armed uprising against Bashar al-Assad is set to deteriorate even further as rebel forces fail to create a common front: “In August, rebel groups in northern Syria began to discuss unity after a successful battle to break a week-long siege around Aleppo. Today, the northern rebels are a fragmented lot along three fronts. These fronts unravelling concurrently put to the test the three most powerful jihadist groups in rebel-held Syria, which do not include ISIL. The first divergence happened when a rebel alliance was formed in August to take on ISIL in Aleppo’s eastern countryside, with air support from the United States and Turkey....The regime’s second siege of Aleppo in September further took the steam out of the merger discussions. By then, the northern rebels had divided on to two battlefields....A third front came about last week, the implications of which could widen the two-front divergence. Clashes between Ahrar Al Sham and Jund Al Aqsa, another key jihadist group, erupted last week in northern Hama and adjacent southern Idlib after a year of tension. In a fatwa, Ahrar Al Sham accused Jund Al Aqsa of discreetly working with ISIL and engaging in an underground campaign of targeting rebel commanders."

Other countries in the region continue to deal with the challenges associated with the refugees fleeing from Russian bombardment. Gulf Today reports that Jordan has proposed allowing the distribution of aid to refugees on the other side of the border, a move welcomed by the international community: “Jordan is willing to allow regular aid drops by crane from its territory to tens of thousands of Syrians stranded on its sealed desert border, the government spokesman said on Monday. The comments by Mohammed Momani signaled an apparent shift in Jordan’s position in talks with international aid agencies over access to the displaced....Jordan has sealed its border with Syria in June, after a deadly cross-border attack claimed by Daesh killed seven members the Jordanian security forces. This has left more than 75,000 Syrians stuck between a war zone and a sealed border, without regular access to food, water and medicine.”

For the time being, however, the only aid being provided to Syrians in cities like Aleppo is being provided by the so-called White Helmets, a group of volunteers nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize who are risking their lives for what this Arab News editorial describes as a grudge match between the United States and Russia: “The situation worsened for the crushed Syrian people when the world’s biggest superpower, the United States, failed to honor its word upon declaring that using chemical weapons is a red line. This not only encouraged Assad to carry on with his crimes, but also paved the way for a full-fledged and unprecedented Russian intervention in the region — an intervention that was not as much in support of the Syrian regime as it was to settle scores with Washington.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.