“We are condemned to hope. What is happening today cannot be the end of history.”
The dramatic events that have recently unfolded in Syria have reminded me of these words said in 1996 by the late Syrian writer and playwright, Sa’dullah Wannous. They have never been as valid as they are today.
The situation in Syria is extremely complex and it is naïve to make any projection or even hope for any immediate breakthrough, but there are two developments that could be game changers in Syria: the direct Russian military intervention in Syria and the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe. These two serious developments ironically have the potential to convince the international community of the urgency of ending the war in Syria; something that even the depths of the humanitarian crisis failed to do.
These recent developments have spread the impact of the Syrian crisis to Western Europe, Russia and the US. It’s no longer a national or regional crisis, it’s indeed an international one.
SYRIA AND THE GHOSTS OF THE COLD WAR
The Syrian conflict has long been internationalized. Russia and the US have been playing the most important roles throughout. Many other countries also have rallied along these two countries’ positions. Assad’s regime received billions of dollars in forms of financial and military aid from Iran and Russia. The US has been also supporting various opposition groups. A huge number of western countries have supported the opposition politically and militarily. More than 20 countries have been involved in a coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Russian and Chinese vetoes shielded Assad’s regime from a referral to the International Criminal Court.
Yet, the direct Russian military intervention has constituted a political earthquake at all levels. This operation is the most serious Russian intervention outside the former Soviet Union since Afghanistan in the 1980s. Along with Russian fighters flying in the sky of Syria, many international powers are directly involved in this crisis, fighting different enemies and supporting different friends. The level of tension is close to that of the Cold War. This is a critical situation. Aware of the alarming risks, Russia and the US both rushed to reach a military agreement to avoid conflict among pilots and drones flying over the battlefields of Syria. A mistake could lead to a perilous confrontation between the world’s two most powerful states.
THE REFUGEE CRISIS: HUMANITY ON THE MOVE
The second development related to the Syrian crisis is the continuation of the refugee crisis. Europe today is facing the biggest influx of refugees since WWII. More than 700,000 migrants, many from Syria, have arrived by sea so far this year. Germany has received by far the highest number of asylum seekers, with almost 222,000 by the end of August. Resettlement plans to distribute the burden between European countries have created tensions between member-states. Countries have blamed each other and shifted their border controls, desperately trying to check the influx of people into or passing through their territories.
The crisis in Europe is serious and far-reaching. One sign of this is Germany’s attempt to approach Turkey to find a solution. Turkey, home to two million Syrian refugees, was called upon to help stop the flow of refugees heading for Europe. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her last visit to Istanbul offered Turkey the prospect of support for faster progress on its bid to join the European Union in return for cooperation in stemming the flow of migrants. This is a major shift in Germany’s position. Ten years ago, Germany was the main opponent of Turkey joining the EU.
WAKE UP CALL?
Both the Russian intervention and the refugee crisis in Europe are making the Syrian crisis too serious to be ignored. Both of these ‘issues’ cannot be solved without tackling the source of the Syrian crisis. They both require urgent international cooperation to end the Syrian war.
Russia cannot achieve any military progress on the ground. Past experience in the Middle East shows that it’s easy to get into a war but it’s extremely difficult to get out of it. In addition, Russia seems to be aware that other international powers involved in the Syrian war and indignant of the Russian intervention can make its mission extremely difficult and practically impossible. Indeed, while the Russian operation is undergoing, Russia is reaching out to different stakeholders seeking to forge some sort of agreement. The alternative is a highly inflammable Syria. Even China, a traditional ally and supporter of the political position of Russia towards Syria, has warned, through its top newspaper, of the dangerous replaying of Cold War rivalry in Syria.
Putin now has the strongest influence over the Syrian regime. One sign of that is what was announced by President Putin after his surprise meeting with the Syrian President in Moscow. After the meeting Putin announced that al-Assad is ready to talk to armed opposition groups, but only if they are “genuinely committed to dialogue and to combating Islamic State.” This is a new position considering that the official narrative of the Syrian regime has been to label all opposition groups as terrorists.
Moreover, in Turkey, the refugee crisis is too complex and too large for the government to deal with alone. The country cannot control two million Syrian refugees already residing there while keeping them from trekking to Europe. One cannot prevent millions of displaced people trapped in Syria in extremely dangerous places from running away to save themselves and their families.
The world that once turned away from the Syrian catastrophe is no longer able to do so now. The conflict has become a real threat to world security.
Will the recent developments be a wakeup call to defuse dangerous international tension and seek peace? No one knows. But we are, as the late Syrian playwright said, “condemned to hope”.