Amid the ongoing rumblings of the devastating conflict of Syria, the last fortnight has seen some interesting developments on the international stage. Despite the huge impact these will have on those still living in Syria, there is a large extent to which they represent performance politics, with heads of state and diplomats addressing one another through the press and organisations like the UN.
The first days of February brought us an interview by BBC Correspondent Lyse Doucette with King Abdullah II of Jordan, in which he asserted that the refugee crisis is pushing his country to “boiling point”. The monarch argued that it is hypocritical of European nations to criticise countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon for limiting the number of refugees they accept without providing them with real financial support to cope with the influx. Caring for victims of the Syrian crisis now accounts for a quarter of Jordanian government spending, and the desert kingdom is witnessing increasing cases of water and electricity theft as resources are stretched to their limit. The crisis is having a similar effect on Turkey and Lebanon, where Human Rights Watch investigators have reported high numbers of children engaged in illicit labour to support their families. King Abdullah explained to the BBC that Jordan will now only take the “most vulnerable” of those refugees waiting on the Syrian side of the Jordanian border. While the armed forces transport the very old and very young to where they can be supported by NGOs, the rest are left stranded in the desert, away from the war but cut off from pretty much everything else.
An even larger group of Syrians have ended up in a similar situation on the Turkish border since Russian and Syrian Government forces began bombarding the city of Aleppo and nearby towns in an attempt to retake them from opposition groups. These groups include the extremist al-Nusra Front, but it is nearly impossible to get a real picture of who’s been running Aleppo since it fell out of Assad’s control, or what political ideologies they might adhere to. Some commentators take the very cynical approach of describing those who don’t justify their fight with an extreme perversion of Islam as “so-called moderates”, implying that they might not share the liberal values of Western democracy and human rights.
it is nearly impossible to get a real picture of who’s been running Aleppo
While it is true that we cannot understand these groups on exactly the same terms as European political parties, I feel that it is also unfair to imply that no-one in Syria holds views which are in some way moderate. We must remember that this whole conflict began with calls for democracy and civil liberties. It seems as though many Western observers are shifting towards the view that the Assad regime represents the strongest bulwark against so-called Islamic terrorism in Syria. This is one of the key arguments justifying Russia’s intervention on the side of the embattled government, and the longer the war rages on, the more open other political leaders become to the idea that Assad must be involved in the country’s future. Indeed, the political negotiations which took place in Munich at end of the week beginning the 8th of February revealed certain tell-tale signs that the Russian perspective may have become less toxic in the eyes of the world powers. Since his visit to Moscow in December, American Secretary of State John Kerry has adopted a more conciliatory stance. A closer look at his speeches and statements this past week reveals little mention of removing the Assad regime.
Despite the ostensible agreement of a ceasefire reached at Munich on Friday the 12th, there is little to suggest that the Syrian conflict will become demilitarised in the near future. Human rights organisations have already accused the Russia-Assad alliance of using cluster bombings in the Aleppo region, in direct contravention of International Law. This may seem like stating the obvious, but 45,000 people don’t walk all the way to Turkey to get away from a ceasefire. Like Jordan, the Turkish government argues that it cannot help any more refugees, having already accepted 2.5 million since fighting began. On top of this, NATO had begun taking refugees who risk the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece back to Turkey, which may seem helpful from an EU perspective, but which doesn’t solve the problem of overcrowding in Turkey.
Such an operation places a significant demand on NATO resources; a demand which will not reduce if refugees don’t see a future for themselves within Turkish society. To add another layer of complexity to the situation, the Turkish army has recently carried out a number of attacks on Kurdish forces operating near its southern border, in a continuation of tensions between Turkish and Kurdish authorities which have gone on for decades. This dimension also suggests that it will be a while before the sounds of war fall quiet in Syria.
Like Jordan, the Turkish government argues that it cannot help any more refugees
Meanwhile, everyone’s favourite absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia, claimed this week that it has begun to prepare ground troops to engage in direct combat in Syria. With Ankara also weighing up the possibility of boots on the ground, this suggests that regional powers remain unconvinced that the conflict can be ended by political agreement alone. From one point of view, there are advantages to deploying soldiers from the region rather than British or American troops in Syria, as this would prevent the engagement looking like a rerun of Iraq in 2003. However, we mustn’t forget that the conflict took on an international quality some time ago.
Although the Iranian government denies this, many observers have commented on the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the conflict, meaning that the involvement of other regional forces could bring political tensions between Middle Eastern nations to the Syrian battleground. The Turkish and Saudi armies, moreover, are not known for their exemplary adherence to international laws governing warfare, or an excessive concern for human rights – just look at the devastation which has been caused by the Saudi bombardment of Yemen over the past months. As such, the idea that Saudi Arabia and Turkey might increase the extent of their military intervention in Syria is deeply concerning. As well as probably pushing more displaced people towards Europe, the fact that Britain is one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest allies and arms suppliers means that we cannot afford to view any of these developments as mere continuations of tensions in a troubled region.