Opinion: The Syrian Crisis- What happens next? by Arsalan Ali

The Syrian crisis has taken a monstrous shape. According to confirmed UN official reports, more than 92,000 people have died between March 2011 and April 2013 including thousands of women and children. There are 2.5 million registered refugees living in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere while about 4 million Syrians have been internally displaced.

The crisis started in March 2011 as a chain of protests against the Bashar regime for more freedoms. The protests were followed by a crackdown by the state on the protesters. In July 2011, army defectors formed the Free Syrian Army and started an armed struggle against the regime forces. The western powers including US almost immediately started arming the rebels; however, Saudi Arab and Qatar took the lead in making that to happen. Similarly, turkey gladly offered its territory as a safe haven to the rebels and to pump arms.
The arms shipments were justified by saying that the Bashar regime was repressive and autocratic. It is, however, an open secret that the arms were and are being supplied to the rebels to overthrow Bashar, not because his regime is repressive but he is an ally of Iran. The conflict was escalated for strategic reasons not for humanitarian reasons.

The civil war that subsequently ensued has now taken a dramatic turn after two years. In the beginning, the rebels were winning and gained some substantial territorial gains but now the tide has turned in favor of the regime forces. It is, at least, a stalemate if Bashar is not winning. This has worried the anti- Bashar camp with US now threatening to launch selective missile strikes against Bashar’s forces so that the rebels might gain the lost ground on the pretext that the Bashar regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels. The UN team which is visiting Syria to probe the alleged use of chemical weapons has not yet found the regime guilty.

This is where the conflict stands today. There are two possible outcomes of the current crisis. Firstly, the stalemate continues. The western powers and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and turkey continue to arm the rebels while Bashar being supported both militarily and diplomatically by Russia and Iran. The talks have already failed on the question of Assad being replaced. The pro-rebel camp is adamant on removing Bashar while Russia and Iran insisting on retaining him. Such a situation will only add to the sufferings of the Syrian people and could become the biggest humanitarian disaster after the genocide in Rwanda. Also, factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, having links to al- Qaeda, will consolidate their position which is not in the interest of either US or Saudi Arabia.

Secondly, the US might launch missile strikes, which appears quite likely, against the Bashar’s forces. Though, the degree to which the regime forces will be weakened by such strikes cannot be ascertained for sure but it will definitely give a breathing space to the rebels. Let’s assume that such strikes give a decisive edge to the rebels and they somehow manage to succeed in the conflict and Bashar is replaced. The real problem begins after that. A self-explanatory example in the form of Libya is before us which is exploding after its civil war, although, Qaddafi is long gone. The whole country is divided between rival factions. The same will likely happen to Syria as well. The US and Saudi Arabia might get their strategic objective of getting rid of an Iranian and Russian ally in the Middle East but it’s long term consequences could prove much more worrisome to their interests in the region. An unstable Syria will pose serious problems to US and Saudi Arabia than a stable, but allied to Iran and Russia, one. The instability will attract jihadist and terrorist groups seeking to overthrow regime in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia must not forget that all of the jihadi groups working against Saudi Arabia and US are Sunni. Giving power to Sunnis in Syria might actually become giving power to the jihadists.

The Syrian crisis and the way it is being handled by western powers and its allies in the Middle East suggest that they have learned nothing from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It was the instability in Afghanistan that gave a breeding ground to Al- Qaeda. It was the notion of global jihad and using jihadists as proxies that made local groups to forge links with groups in foreign countries and have an international reach. It was the arms and training provided to such groups that turned them into a formidable force. The war in Iraq, Libya and now Syria made Al- Qaeda and its affiliated groups to consolidate their position in these countries.If such a short-sightedness continues, that day is not far when the same people who dig holes for others will fall themselves into it.

The writer is Master’s degree holder in International Relations from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

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