Wednesday, March 15, marks 12 years since the first peaceful protests broke out in Syria challenging the regime of Bashar al-Assad. What has happened to Syria since then is incomprehensible.
A civil war that has killed more than half a million people and caused 13 million people to leave their homes to become refugees; a pandemic; and an earthquake that killed an additional 6,000 people in Syria and left 250,000 homeless.
The toll of civilians is estimated at 125,000. But that’s surely an undercount. With Russia’s help, Assad has made war on his own people, bombing, shooting executing, and gassing the population. Entire regions have been wiped of houses, and the refugee camps have become permanent homes for most of the nation’s children.
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The task of rebuilding Syria will fall on the Gulf States and the West. But as long as Assad remains in power, the war will grind on. And until there is some kind of peace, little can be done to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
Syrians have been visited by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; conquest, war, famine, and death, And before the devil is through with them, they’re likely to see a few more steeds to add to their pain.
The White Helmets in Syria — the only aid group that’s relatively accepted by all combatants because they maintain scrupulous neutrality — reached their limit when the quake hit.
Unequipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude, the group quickly turned to the international community for help, but its leaders say they were neglected by the world.
The United Nations has come under significant criticism over the response, and Al-Saleh said the global body should accept some of the blame “from rescue workers who lost their nails while trying to save those trapped under the rubble and from families of victims grieving for their children.”
The U.N. has accepted that it took too long to get help into northern Syria. Those delays were due in large part to the ongoing war. It took U.N. officials and others a week to convince the Assad regime to open two additional border crossings into the rebel-held north. Only one had been in operation when the quakes struck. Opposition factions have also been accused of hindering the flow of aid, including by stealing it and then selling it on the black market.
How useless has the UN been the last 12 years? In a report issued Monday, an independent commission found “a complete failure by the government and the international community including the United Nations to rapidly direct urgent lifesaving aid for northwest Syria” after the earthquakes. One of the commissioners noted that “many days were lost without any aid to survivors.”
Meanwhile, Assad and Syria are gaining respectability, and it appears that any thought of removing Assad from power by western-backed fighters has been abandoned.
Assad appears poised to make a political comeback in the Arab world, more than a decade after the 22-member Arab League suspended Syria’s membership over his brutal crackdown on protesters and later on civilians during the war.
International sympathy following the quake appears to have sped up the regional rapprochement that had been brewing for years. Before the tragedy, the United Arab Emirates had already reestablished ties with Damascus, while Syria had been increasing its contacts with Turkey, a main backer of the opposition.
Rebuilding Syria will be beyond even the wealth of Saudi Arabia. Syrian economist Samir Seifan estimates Syria suffered about $150 billion in physical damage and said reconstruction could ultimately cost over $400 billion. Remember, at some point, we’re going to have to spend even more to rebuild Ukraine.
Assad and his pal in Moscow have drawn up a textbook diagram of how to defeat a popular insurgency. If a leader is brutal enough, uncaring of his people enough, and picks the right sort of allies who won’t abandon him when things get bloody, he can climb to the top of the manure pile and claim victory.
What exactly Assad and Putin have “won” remains a matter of debate.