IT IS a comprehensively grim anniversary. Looking back at a decade of conflict as complex, murky, and murderous as Syria’s, the areas of shadow inevitably exceed greatly the areas of light. There is much that we cannot yet see.
For now, the focus is on identifying some key turning points in the hope of understanding things a little better. One significant moment was Russia’s military intervention in 2015 on the side of the Syrian government.
The Russians rescued President Bashar al-Assad as his regime was close to being overwhelmed by a range of rebel forces; and this gave Moscow an enhanced and long-term part to play in Syria. So, one clear result: Syria, in whatever shape it emerges, will remain beholden to Russia.
It is easy to forget, against the background of such tectonic geopolitical changes and the ten-year-long barrage of horrendous, but eventually numbing, images of death and destruction, how the whole thing started.
IT STARTED in a quiet way. To quote the sober language of a UN report, in February 2011, “Syrians began protesting [against] rural poverty, corruption, the detention of political prisoners, and the lack of freedom of expression and democratic rights”.
The security forces responded to peaceful protests with violence, in March detaining and torturing a group of children caught painting anti-government graffiti on walls in the southern city of Der’a. Protests spread across Syria.
At the end of March 2011, President Assad was preparing to give his first public address to parliament since the unrest began. Rumours suggested that he would announce a range of reforms to calm the nation. When the moment came, the tone of his speech, punctuated by flippant and supercilious asides that played to his cheering supporters, was both frivolous and contemptuous.
The troubles, he said, had been instigated by foreign conspirators and satellite TV stations. No more to be said. The President ignored the protesters’ grievances and announced no reforms.
This was a defining moment. President Assad sent a message to his opponents that human life would, if necessary, be expendable in his determination to stay in power. The President in this way set the deadly ground rules that his forces and those of his opponents have adopted since then. It is a fight to the death.
The Syrian air force, later supported by formidable Russian air power, pulverised cities, towns, and villages. Barrel bombs were dropped on civilian infrastructure, and, in August 2011, a sarin gas attack on a suburb of Damascus killed more than 1000 people.
A red line on the use of chemical weapons set by President Obama had been crossed. But the UK Parliament voted against supporting US military action, and President Obama himself decided eventually against it. The West looked weak and powerless.
THE international community has remained wary of involvement in Syria, beyond, for a time, supporting some of the fractious opposition movements. The Anglican Primate of Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Michael Lewis, says: “The West and the rest of the international community have either been hesitant, ineffective, or frankly naïve in their interventions, not least because of a variety of contradictory alliances with major regional players.”
They have decided, in his view: “This is just too complicated and risky for us. Horrible though the sufferings of the Syrian people are, let the conflict play out as it will.”
Christians in Syria are particularly vulnerable, lacking a power base of their own, and watching Islamist groups take over areas of the country. In 2013, the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo, Mar Yohanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Paul Yazigi, were seized by gunmen in northern Syria and have not been seen since.
Bishop Lewis urges the worldwide Church to “understand the particular agonising difficulty for the Christian Churches of Syria, some of the most ancient Christian communities in the world, who depend for protection on whoever wields power in their city or district, irrespective of what they may privately think of them”.
As for the Anglican community in Damascus, the Archbishop in Jerusalem, the Most Revd Suheil Dawani, says that All Saints’ Church “has been without a resident priest throughout the length of the war. The congregation number about 120, and have been very faithful in meeting together for Morning Prayer services all this time.” Because of the pandemic, “the Anglican Archdeacon in Beirut has not been able to visit the congregation to take services in Damascus for about a year.”
TEN years on, there is little cause for optimism. And even if the war does eventually end, dealing with the aftermath will take many years. Martin Leach, Eurasia and North Africa lead for Tearfund, points out: “The Syrian refugee crisis is the largest of our time. More than six million people are displaced within the country, and another 5.6 million have fled to neighbouring countries. . .
“Syrian families continue to suffer the effects of an intense conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and set back the standard of living by decades.” The majority of Syrians now live below the poverty line, thus “the effects of Covid-19 are weakening the country’s dire economic situation even further.”
A decade on, the days of peaceful protest calling for liberty and democracy seem part of a different era. Since then, the aspirations of the Syrian people have been forgotten, buried under a decade of violence. “I ask Christians, wherever they are, to keep the people of Syria alive in their prayers,” Bishop Lewis said. “Don’t forget them.”
Gerald Butt, a former Middle East Correspondent of the BBC and the Church Times, is Middle East Adviser to Oxford Analytica, a geopolitical analyst and advisory firm.