The war in Syria spurred the most acute humanitarian crisis in the Middle East since World War II. Ten years after its outbreak, there are those seeking to bring the suffering to an end and those seeking to prolong it.
On Erev Pesach 10 years ago, when a civil uprising erupted in Syria against President Bashar Assad, Mohammed Sabatni was a boy of 12. He remembers his father waking him in the middle of the night and urging him to dress quickly, because they had to leave the house.
“Where are we going?” he asked his parents, and he remembers clearly their response: “We don’t know either. We’re not staying here. We’re running away.”
Mohammed, now 22, lives with his mother and brothers in a remote refugee camp in Turkey. His father tried to return to Syria to retrieve some clothes and other items, but disappeared without a trace. He was likely killed, like many others who disappeared in the civil war that continues to this day in Syria.
The country was home to 24 million people before the uprising. Between 700,000 and 1 million of them were killed. About 4 million were wounded, some of them permanently maimed. About 7 million Syrians became refugees in foreign lands. They fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states.
The elite — the doctors and those in liberal arts professions, the wealthy and anyone of means — paid a lot of money for ship owners to smuggle them and their families out to Europe. From there they scattered to the rest of the world. About half of Syria’s citizens have been left without homes, and many of them without their possessions either.
Senior Israeli intelligence officials call Syria today the “omelet.” You can take an egg, crack it open and make an omelet out of it, but you will never be able to take that omelet and turn it back into an egg. That’s Syria. The uprisings and wars, the incursion of the Iranians and the Russians, the Turks and the proxies of the Lebanese Hezbollah have turned the whole region into a fire zone in which there’s an average of one death or two injuries every two hours.
Everyone in Syria carries weapons and fights. For the most part, they are not sure who they are fighting. Sunni Muslims against Shiites and vice versa. The Druze against the Alawites, the Turkish army against the Syrian army, and the Turkish army against Assad’s forces. And in all this turmoil, there are the Iranians and the Russians, who came because they thought they could advance their own interests, but today realize they are rapidly sinking in the quicksand that is Syria, and don’t know how to extricate themselves with their dignity intact.
On and on it goes. This week marks a decade since the uprising began. But who’s celebrating? It’s more like a memorial day to the multitudes who have been killed, to lives that have been suspended. Mohammed Sabatni, who fled to Turkey, is now his family’s primary breadwinner. They live in a tent in a refugee camp with no water or electricity. They freeze in the harsh winter, and if not for blankets provided by a few kind Turks, they would have frozen to death like so many others in the camps.
Sabatni left his studies and hasn’t opened a book since. There are millions of children and adolescents like him in Syria and beyond. The education system fell apart 10 years ago. Mohammed gets up in the morning and searches for any work that will put a few liras in his pocket so he can feed his family. He has no idea what his future holds. His biggest fear is that Turkey will expel all the Syrian refugees back into the “omelet.” He doesn’t want to go back. There’s nowhere to go.
Sabatni, like many other youths who fled, is happy to be alive. About 15,000 Syrian children were killed in the battles. And there’s no end in sight.
It all began 10 years ago, after several years of drought in northern Syria that left millions of farmers without livelihoods. About one and a half million farmers migrated southward to the capital of Damascus and other cities, in the hope of finding work.
In the city of Dara’a, in southern Syria, students took to the street to demonstrate on behalf of their parents’ plight. Instead of trying to speak to them, Assad sent in his troops to disperse the demonstrations. This meant shooting and mass arrests of youths and teens — hundreds of whom were tortured to death in jail.
It was there in Dara’a that the uprising against Assad and his brutal regime began, triggered by the sight of young people left without arms, legs and eyes. It spread quickly throughout Syria. Everyone was sure that the president would capitulate, or perhaps flee. Maybe he would be harmed by someone, or would harm himself.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, Assad barricaded himself in his palace, surrounding the area with his army and emerging only on rare occasions. He invited the Iranians to come help him, knowing that they had been dreaming for generations of expanding their influence in the Middle East, in order to disseminate the Shiite religion. Indeed, they willingly accepted the invitation and joined the Syrian government forces in suppressing the uprisings. They sent large numbers of their people to Syria to facilitate the revolution they dreamed of — turning Syria into a Shiite stronghold, as they had done in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
When Iran entered Syria, Russia felt threatened, because it has a number of major military installations on the Mediterranean coast, and so it joined the fray. Russia sought to protect its own assets and to bolster its economy by participating in the eventual reconstruction of Syria. But meanwhile, no one has stepped forward to offer Syria the $350 billion it will need to reconstruct itself.
And then came the coronavirus.
Syria was left without functioning hospitals, clinics, doctors or nurses, who had fled and found work in other countries. In the last year, Syria was badly stricken by corona. Many who contracted the virus died. Others are suffering terribly from post-corona symptoms. Who there even dreams of a vaccine? And even when international aid organizations wanted to send vaccines to Damascus, it emerged that there was no one to handle their storage and administration.
The regime is busy with the war, which keeps moving to different front lines in the country. Sometimes the fight is against Islamic State, other timess against Turkey. The Syrian army is waging President Assad’s war, but it is shrinking steadily. Many have fallen in battle; others have deserted, taking their families and fleeing.
The Syrian army is so in need of fighters that it lowered the draft age from 18 to 16 and then to 14. Today, even 8- and 10-year-olds are drafted. Syria’s “war children” are trained with weapons and sent to the battlefronts, and many never return. Children who do not want to enlist are abducted and sent for army service.
Israel is not directly involved in what is going on there, but it doesn’t want Iran to get too strong a foothold along its northern border. Israel is working against Iran and against any other Shiite elements who are trying to foment war on the Israel-Syrian border.
Now there seem to be small signs that Russia is planning to withdraw from the area. There are also signs — albeit minor and inconspicuous — that Assad is recalculating; that he realizes he erred by distancing himself from Israel and inviting the Iranians instead.
Does this new situation indicate that we are about to see some positive developments on the Syrian front?
Yitzchak Levanon, a veteran foreign service official in Israel who served as Israel’s ambassador to a number of nations, including Egypt, attempts to answer some of these questions. He is not optimistic.
“A short time after the uprising broke out in Dara’a 10 years ago, Western intelligence predicted the disappearance of Bashar Assad within a short time. Senior officials in Israel even gave him just a few weeks until he would pack his bags and flee to Tehran to live out his life. A decade later, Assad is still here, alive and kicking,” he says.
“There are many lessons to be learned from the Syrian Arab Spring. There was an intelligence failure … The failure of President [Barack] Obama to display any power or determination at Assad’s use of chemical weapons opened a wide window to allow Russia into the Syrian front.
“Israel decided to keep a distance from the goings-on in the neighboring country, but not for long. The urgent humanitarian situation led it to provide medical aid to needy Syrians who fought against Assad. Yet not much has remained of that, and it is doubtful that those beyond the border see us as being out of target range.
“Another lesson is the increased strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the establishment of Iran in Syria. That brought us into a direct conflict with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
“Another important lesson is that the international community sees Assad as the solution, not the problem. It has concluded that the demand to get rid of him is not realistic. A decade in, we are in a worse state than what was. There’s no solution in sight. … Assad controls two-thirds of his country after repelling his enemies with the help of Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. He owes them, and there is no solution to this bloody crisis without them.
“Assad has actually conceded control of Syria’s borders. Nearly 20% of the sea and land borders are controlled by foreign elements. Nevertheless, his control over the rest of Syria has made it possible for him to survive all this time. Areas of influence have been formed, de facto. Relative stability, de facto. Foreign presence on Syrian territory, de facto, and a lack of a solution to the crisis, de facto.
“In contrast to all the other players, Israel has unique considerations. Except for Russia, all the other players in Syria are hostile to Israel. Therefore, Israel’s conduct has to be not only military offensives. Quiet diplomacy is also possible. Moscow is the best at this. It doesn’t want Iran, Hezbollah or Turkey in Syria. It wants to be the only player there. It’s remarkable to see how Russia’s interests are so similar to Israel’s. There’s a hotline between Yerushalayim and Moscow; it just needs to be used,” Levanon concludes.
Syria is a country with a tragic fate, whose president has been trying for a long time to find a way to extricate himself from the bind he is in. He wants to ask the world for help in rehabilitating his country. He realizes now more than ever that part of the solution to his situation depends on his ability to distance the “main factor” that prevents Syria from throwing off the shackles of their troubles, and to begin being part of the modern world again. That is also where the money is. Iran will not open its pockets to Syria, and neither will Russia. Those who might be willing to help won’t do so as long as Iran is in control of Syria.
Assad sees his country bloodied and falling apart, and wants to rid himself of the Iranians. But the ayatollahs have invested a fortune in helping Assad, and they have no intention of releasing their chokehold.
Meanwhile, there’s yet another war in this country, over which the president has little control. In the distant north, the Turks and the Kurds are battling groups of rebels, and Islamic State (IS) and Russia and Assad’s army get drawn into them. In the east and south of Syria there is a different war. Areas under Iranian control absorb aerial and ground offensives. Syria is falling apart.
The war goes on, but it is not the same large-scale war of a few years ago. There is no constant fighting, but neither is there peace or calm. There are constant outbreaks of violence, and no police force to deal with highway robbers and thieves who break into homes.
Assad is messaging the world that he is not bound to the pact with the Iranians, and that he needs help in getting out of the occupation that was forced upon him. Therein lies the biggest question: Is it possible to separate Syria from the Shiite axis to which it is so deeply connected?
This question isn’t all that relevant, however, because the Iranians are not the only ones in Syria. In the north, the Turks have taken over large swaths of land, where they reign freely. The Russians control bases and outposts. Even the Americans are still on their bases in Syria. Hezbollah is active. All this makes it impossible for Assad to answer yes to the biggest question: Are you able to free yourself of all those entities in your territory?
Assad is maneuvering between Russia and Iran, and he needs them both. Perhaps when he knows that he has a promise for massive aid from the rich and moderate Arab world, he will be ready to enter into a conflict with Iran, but not before that.
Israel could help him in many ways, but that will not happen unless Assad changes his approach to the Jewish state and gets the Iranians out of his country. Until then, Israel remains the enemy on the border.
Iran reads the map very well, and knows that almost all the entities in Syria are trending toward a series of future agreements, with mutual compromises, that will lead to a “New Syria” that is calm and free of war. This is bad for Tehran, which has spent nearly 30 billion euros to date on its campaign in Syria, and is being pushed to the margins by those with various interests in the country. Iran has officially announced that it will “remain in Syria as long as it will be asked to do so.” In other words, it has no intention of leaving. Yet it is not clear how much water this declaration holds.
The Iranians have no interest in being part of the changes in Syria, because that would mean they have to leave. They see Syria as too important a territory in the Shiite crescent, and in their efforts to achieve contiguity on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This contiguity would also give them a direct supply line to Hezbollah, which has taken over Lebanon and from there, threatens Israel and deters Israel from any widespread action against Iran.
While Russia, America, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — and chief among them, the Assad government — are looking for solutions to end the war in Syria, Iran is the only one doing what it can to intensify its presence there.
There have been recent hints that Israel is maintaining secret ties with Syria. Assad’s realization that Iran has become a burden on his country motivates him to get rid of them. He realizes that achieving this goal goes through Israel, which may be the reason for the reported contacts between the two countries.
If such talks exist, Israel is telling Assad’s people, “You brought the Iranians to solve your Islamic State problem and the civil war, but now that IS is finished, the solution (Iran) has become your biggest problem. Only you in Damascus can release yourself from all these bonds. Israel is ready to help you if you start helping yourselves.”
Israel views Russia as a key in any future solution, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke to President Vladimir Putin about it very recently. It emerged during this conversation that Assad understands the situation and wants to get closer to the Sunni axis in order to pay his debts to Iran and expel them from Syria. He sees that Israel has the ability to help him, with the United States on one hand and the Gulf States and Sunni countries on the other. Russia also sees Israel as the bridge to all these nations.
Assad is ready to speak to Israel in order to shore up his regime, to return to the Arab League, to pay his financial debt to Iran, and to establish a situation of no-combat with Israel. Then will come negotiations on the Golan, or at least the return of Druze villages in the Golan.
For Israel it’s important that an opportunity has arisen here to dismantle the radical axis — the Iran axis. Assad sees no more reason for Iran to be in his country. Moreover, Russia also doesn’t want to see Tehran and its proxies — the Shiite militias — in Syria.
The Russian interest is clear: The quicker Syria becomes a functioning nation again, the quicker Moscow will be able to withdraw its military forces, which are costing a fortune. Furthermore, Russia wants to expedite the extraction of Syrian gas from the Mediterranean Sea so that Damascus can pay its debt for Russian aid of recent years.
There are rumors about a secret meeting between Israel and Assad’s people on a Russian base near Latakia in northern Syria. To date, there has been no reliable Israeli response to these reports. But there is no smoke without fire. And in the haze of smoke enveloping Syria, it will take time for Yerushalayim and Damascus to meet in order to advance an agreement between them.
Until then, Syria and its citizens will continue to pay a heavy and needless price.