Will this anniversary of the war in Syria be the last?
For 72 hours in 2014, the names of 100,000 victims of the Syrian crisis were recited on the White House lawn. If repeated today, it would need well over 300 hours, and perhaps be done in front of the Kremlin as well. As Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was meant to have declared: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.”
Another anniversary of the Syria conflict has come around. Once again, one wonders how much of the world will notice, and how many will really care. Will the US president, who tweets about the ratings of a reality television show, say anything about the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II?
Of course, many care. At times, the world has focussed on the fate of iconic child victims such as Hamza Al-Khateeb, 13, who died in a regime prison cell and was returned butchered to his parents; Alan Kurdi, 5, whose body washed up on Turkish shores; Omran Daqneesh, 5, with his shell-shocked face in the back of an ambulance; and Bana Al-Abed, 7, whose tweets from besieged Aleppo touched the world, earning her the moniker of Syria’s Anne Frank.
But the interest is rarely sustained, the emotions and outrage dulled by scale and hopelessness. Gone are the days where some in the Syrian opposition used to celebrate the anniversary as the anniversary of the revolution. A grim, doom-laden pall hangs over Syrians, who wonder whether there will be a seventh, eighth or ninth anniversary to contend with.
The total cost of this conflict is unfathomable. People trot out statistics in terms of reconstruction from $280 million to as high as over $1 trillion, but it is little more than semi-informed guesswork. The physical loss may be easier to determine, but how do you cost the destruction in Palmyra or Aleppo’s Old City?
More crucial is the psychological destruction, as a recent Save the Children report bears testimony. It found that 70 percent of children interviewed suffered from “toxic stress” that can leave lifelong damage. Any visit to a refugee community soon bears this out. Many of the children cannot speak or make eye-contact. Adults suffer likewise. Bombed-out hospitals and schools may get rebuilt, but how does one handle shattered, terrorized minds?
What might year seven of this conflict hold for the country? As ever, unpredictability stalks Syria. A case can be made that this year may see the end of massive-scale fighting between the regime and opposition forces in western Syria.
If one thing stands out on 6th anniversary, it is the absence of Syrians having any say in the future of what was once their country.
Aleppo has fallen, or more accurately been felled. The regime is “cleansing” areas around Damascus. Al-Waer, on the outskirts of Homs, faces its fourth year of siege if current Russian-led negotiations fail. At some point Idlib too may fall, but for the time being bombing and shelling will continue as a daily, bloody ritual.
Yet regime control is shaky. Its areas are increasingly vulnerable to suicide bombings, as in Damascus on March 11 and recent ones in Homs, not least as Daesh and Al-Qaeda lose territory.
It is in the north and east where the regional conflict is being played out. Here, parcels of Syrian real estate are carved out in separate occupied dominions, with the Turkish zone, the shrinking Daesh zone, and areas where Russian and US forces reinforce their local proxies. In the past, foreign states were motivated by grander regional designs in Syria, but now internal domestic considerations are the drivers.
Turkey fears the Kurds, Jordan and Israel worry about the security of their northern borders, and the US only sees Syria in terms of Daesh, its policy in the hands of the Pentagon rather than the State Department. All the signs are that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is not too keen on stacking up air miles shuttling between the Middle East and Geneva, unlike his predecessor.
A slender thread of hope lies in the Geneva IV process, which appears to have progressed beyond grandstanding. But just like the anniversaries, one fears there will be a Geneva V, VI and VII. So far the cynics and doom-mongers have been proved right on Syria. If they are to be wrong this time, it requires less force and more diplomacy. The US cannot stand in the background and assume that Russia, Turkey and Iran can deliver some grand solution.
One option might be for these great powers to allow Syrians to decide the future of their country, a radical option yet to be tried, but paid lip service to in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Even the Syrian regime is little more than a puppet caught between competing patrons Russia and Iran. If one thing stands out on this anniversary, it is the absence of Syrians having any say in the future of what was once their country.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.