Syria’s Worsening Conflict

Posted: October 25, 2012 in Oriental Morning Post
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Am catching up a bit on late posting as have been rather busy of late, so a few coming in late. Here is a piece for the 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) about Syria. Takes a somewhat negative view which may be finally slipping into the past (and I had previously elaborated in a letter to the Financial Times and for CNN), but at the same time, it is hard to see rapid action taking place any time soon. As usual, I have posted the Chinese above, and the English I initially submitted below.

叙利亚僵局的代价

潘睿凡   英国伦敦国际激进主义化   研究中心副研究员
这是一出我们曾多次经历过的故事,而最终结局总是大家各收恶果。简单地等待其自我结束也许要很多年,而且只会令恢复期拖得更长。

叙利亚境内的冲突进入第20个月,情形完全没有任何缓和迹象。暴力愈演愈烈,已经蔓延至邻国。激进分子的武器装备不断更新,手段更加极端,双方的暴行都在继续升级。在这一国内冲突不断恶化的情况下,国际社会表面上袖手旁观,暗地里则各自支持自己的代理人,结果导致了一盘僵局,今后的几年中,整个世界将被这一问题所困。

让我们先来看看情形是如何在恶化。起初,这是一场较低层次的民间冲突,阿萨德政府试图用相对有限的武力来确保其统治地位。而如今,这已经演化成了一场双方都不断采用暴力手段的冲突。据西方媒体报道,作为惩罚反对派控制地区轰炸战略的一部分,政府军无视可能带来的平民伤亡,在城市里使用了集束炸弹,但政府军否认了这一指控。反对派中的极端分子则以牙还牙地公布了一系列录像,展示他们如何冷酷屠杀和折磨捕获的政府军俘虏,而自杀性炸弹更是成了常见手段。随着时间推移,双方都对此类手段更加习以为常,也更加适应了这种残酷环境,这进一步拉长了冲突,使得双方更为胶着。

但对于世界而言,比内部矛盾升级更为可怕的是越来越明显的区域性“溢出效应”。据称,为了报复土耳其对于反对派的支持,叙利亚政府开始扶持土耳其的库尔德工人党(PKK)。今年7月,叙利亚空军击落了一架土耳其飞机。更为清晰的证据是本月早些时候发生的叙土边境炮击事件。作为反对派进入叙利亚的一个重要补给站,土耳其也从不同方面加以回击:除了继续作为叙利亚反对派军队获取武器的通道之外,他们还截获了用以支持政府军的装备,这使叙利亚政府军和提供方俄罗斯都非常恼火。

从叙利亚自身来看,代理人之争亦在延续。伊朗力量、他们的黎巴嫩和伊拉克代理人都支持阿萨德政权。而他们的对手则是支持反对派的波斯湾阿拉伯人的财力,最近爆出的新闻称,大量旨在供给反对军的武器最终落到了圣战派手中,而圣战派的目的并不仅仅只是要让整个国家摆脱阿萨德,还要创建一个由伊斯兰教义统治的哈里发。这种意识形态推动了基地组织这类团体,正如过去阿拉伯人在经济上支援逊尼极端分子,用以对抗什叶派支持的伊朗-叙利亚联盟。

因此我们有了所有制造毒药的成分:一场带有宗教色彩(永无止境的逊尼派与什叶派之争)的宗派冲突(我们不要忘记本质上,叙利亚冲突是阿拉维少数派和被他们多年来统治的逊尼阿拉伯多数派之间的冲突),而这正在变成其他力量与其代理人之间的游戏战争。

这是我们并不陌生的悲剧:上世纪90年代,在前南斯拉夫分崩离析之时,一场由许多相同演员参与的类似游戏曾经上演。其结局是在欧洲中部创建了一个圣战派战场,滋生了许多恐怖主义细胞和一个被遗弃的国家:塞尔维亚,至今孤零零地处于欧洲大陆。

但是过快的干涉也会带来负面反弹。在英国和法国的煽动下,北约比较迅速地出兵利比亚,支持卡扎菲的反对力量。尽管最终结果是卡扎菲的下台和新政府的创建,但显然极端分子在这个国家里建立了自己的影响和力量,而转变并不像很多人期待的那样干净利落。但是希望也并非不存在,因为反对极端力量的公众之声已经开始呈现,这意味着利比亚的很多人正在抗拒极端分子。

叙利亚的问题在于,僵局拖得越长,这些极端主义团体的力量越大,不同派系之间的仇恨越深。因为暴行和杀戮越来越多,将来这个国家重新恢复的时候,要调和矛盾变得越来越困难。这导致叙利亚被“巴尔干化”,各种不同团体控制不同地区,从而在未来几十年内滋生各种问题。

目前我们还不清楚叙利亚冲突将会行至多远。任何一天都有可能发生某种巨大变化,比如阿萨德被击毙,或者政府军决定采用化学武器。但是此刻,暴力正在残酷上演,而其他国家只是在利用代理人推进自己的利益,从而导致情况进一步恶化,叙利亚人认为自己已经被国际社会抛弃。这是一出我们曾多次经历过的故事,而最终结局总是大家各收恶果。简单地等待其自我结束也许要很多年,而且只会令恢复期拖得更长。(李鸣燕 译)

Syria’s Worsening Conflict

As we enter the 20th month of fighting in Syria, it is clear the situation is only deteriorating. Violence is increasingly spilling across borders, radical groups in the country are becoming better armed and more extreme, while atrocities by both sides continue unabated. And while this internal chaos continues to worsen, the international community stands by, with everyone supporting their respective proxies under the table. The result is a stalemate that is going to incubate problems that will haunt the world for years to come.

First, let us look at how the situation is deteriorating. From a low level civil conflict in which an overbearing government was trying to hold onto power using relatively limited force, we have now degenerated into a conflict in which increasingly brutal acts are being carried out by both sides. The government has taken to using cluster bomb munitions in cities as part of a heavy airborne bombing campaign that punishes rebel held areas, regardless of the possible civilian presence. From the rebel’s perspective, extremist factions within the confusing coalition that makes up the opposition have taken to releasing videos in which they coldly execute captured government prisoners, others in which they show prisoners who have been tortured and suicide bombers are no longer a rarity. And as the fighting drags on, both sides become better at carrying out such acts and surviving in such a brutal environment, further prolonging and rendering more gruesome the conflict.

But more menacing to the world than this internal escalation is the increasing evidence of regional overspill taking place. There are stories of the Syrian government supporting PKK rebels in Turkey in revenge for Turkey’s support of rebels inside Syria. It has been reported, with apparent documentary support, that Syrian forces may have executed a captured Turkish pilot whose plane was brought down by their air defense system. More clear than either of these stories was the shooting earlier this month of a missile from Syria into Turkey, killing five Turks. Turkey, a key staging post for rebels going into Syria, has struck back in different ways. Aside from continuing to allow its territory to be a conduit for rebels and the weapons, they have also acted to intercept supplies being shipped in to support the government, something that has angered both the Syrian government and their Russian suppliers.

Within Syria itself, these proxy dynamics continue, with Iranian forces and their Lebanese and Iraqi proxies mobilizing in support of the Assad regime. Facing off against them are rebel groups supported by Gulf Arab money, with recent reports highlighting that a high proportion of the weapons being provided to the rebels were ending up in the hands of jihadist factions whose vision is less focused on simply freeing the country from Assad than the creation of a shariah governed caliphate. Exactly the sort of ideology that drives groups like al Qaeda, as the old dynamic of Gulf money supporting Sunni extremists plays against the Shiite supported Iranian-Syrian coalition.

And so we have all the ingredients necessary for a toxic swamp. A sectarian conflict (let us not forget that at heart Syria is a struggle between an Alawite minority and the Sunni Arab majority they have brutally ruled over for decades), with the religious overtones of the never-ending Sunni-Shia struggle, that has increasingly become a staging ground for other powers to play out their proxy games.
This is a sad mess we have seen before: back in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia fell apart, a very similar dynamic played itself out with many of the same actors. The result was the creation of a jihadist battlefield in the middle of Europe that produced a number of terrorist cells and the creation of a pariah state – Serbia – that sits alone in the middle of the continent to this day. Eventually the outside world did step into that conflict, but by that time it was far too late and the scars will still take years to heal.

But rapid intervention can also have negative repercussions. At Britain and France’s instigation, NATO deployed relatively rapidly in Libya to support the rebellion against Colonel Gadhaffi. And while the end result was his deposition and the creation of a free government, it is clear that extremist factions have established themselves in the country and the transition will not be as clean as many hoped. There is some light at the end of this tunnel, however, as a public outcry against the groups has already started to build, suggesting that the picture remains a complex one with many in the country rejecting the extremist’s message. While it is too early to say, it is possible that the more rapid resolution of events in Libya left the nation less brutalized and prone to extremism.

The problem with Syria is that the longer the stalemate drags on, the more powerful these extremist groups become and the deeper becomes the hatred between the various factions. As more and more atrocities are committed and people killed, the harder it becomes to reconcile later when the country is being brought back together. This leads to a balkanization within the country with different areas ruled by different groups, a state of affairs that incubates problems for decades to come.

It is not clear how far along in the Syrian conflict we are at this point or how much longer it has to run. Any day a sudden shift could take place if Bashar al Assad was killed or the government chose to deploy chemical weapons. But at the moment it grinds brutally on with others advancing their interests by proxy and further worsening a situation while the people of Syria feel abandoned by the international community. This is a story we have seen played out many times before, and the end result is always further problems for everyone else down the road. Simply waiting for it to burn out can take years and will only make the recovery period longer. We have already let things run too long to avoid any subsequent negative repercussions, let us not continue to make this mistake for too much longer.

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