There is likely to be a massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent people unless Arab rulers step up to the plate on Syria and show real leadership. I fear, however, that the plight of the men, women and children cowering under the regime’s barrel bombs and bunker busters is of little concern to those overseeing the final destruction of a war-torn nation.
Why is there no mechanism to challenge the leadership in the Arab world, where rulers would rather die than step down, even though their regimes cause untold pain, misery and hardship for millions? Are they so intoxicated by power that they cannot see the suffering which surrounds them?
When the much-loved Nelson Mandela bade farewell as leader of 42 million South Africans, he not only left his country in better shape — running water in 80 per cent of homes, 63 per cent of households connected to the electricity grid and 700,000 new homes built — but he also had the admiration of the world. Is there one single Arab leader who can boast of a similar legacy or of having the global respect that Mandela enjoyed?
The legendary freedom fighter was also honest enough to concede the failings of the African National Congress government, making reference to crime, corruption and unemployment, but he underlined the fact that “the foundation has been laid — the building is in progress” back in 1999. Had he chosen to stand for a second term as President, few would have complained, but Mandela was a man who truly believed in justice, equality and fairness. He knew that it was right to step back from centre stage.
Of course, it’s not just across the Arab world where leaders have a history of being reluctant to retire. Hugo Chávez campaigned for the end of limits to presidential terms of office in Venezuela, and Robert Mugabe rigged Zimbabwe’s elections to remain in the top job for decades. National liberation leaders such as Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, Kim Il Sung and Muammar Gaddafi all regarded their roles as positions for life. And we saw Russia’s Vladimir Putin with his own personal revolving door which saw him switch from president to prime minister and back to president again.
However, with the exception of Qatar where Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani voluntarily stepped down in 2013 in favour of his son, the Middle East is awash with fragile old despots clinging on to their thrones with the desperation of children on a white-knuckle ride. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei commands the ultimate political and religious authority ranking above the democratically elected Iranian presidents, who are indeed constrained by the limit of their term in office.
Younger Arab rulers are not immune to such temptations. Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, for example, is equally addicted to power regardless of the cost to the people under his rule. The cost of this fixation with power to Syria’s long-suffering citizens has been staggering. At the start of the Arab Uprisings in 2011, around 22 million people lived in Syria; today, nearly six million are scattered across the region and beyond. Syrians are the world’s largest refugee population under the UN mandate, while millions more are internally displaced.
When the Syrian people took to the streets in peaceful protests in the spring of 2011, Assad could have seized the initiative and engaged in talks with his people. By the autumn, though, a full blown civil war had erupted which became a magnet for international interference and state players like Iran, Russia and others from the West.
Now there is an entrenched deadlock from which America, Britain and other European nations are desperately trying to disengage. None of them want to admit that Assad is on the cusp of victory, if that’s what he can call the utter destruction of his country and the annihilation of his people. The truth is that sooner or later it will happen, but not before even more blood is spilled.
Fierce clashes between Syrian government forces and rebel fighters in the north-western province of Idlib, despite a ceasefire brokered last week by Russia and Turkey, have been reported along with more barrel bombs, bunker busters and other deadly munitions being dropped by Assad’s army and its Russian allies.
After a brutal nine year war which has claimed, destroyed and disrupted millions of lives, Idlib is the last haven for Syrians fleeing attacks by Assad’s regime, the Iranians and Russians. Around 350,000 fled there in December and now live in refugee camps awash with mud and floodwater, and offering little comfort or shelter. To the north, Turkey’s border is closed; the country has reached saturation point after taking in three million Syrian refugees already.
The latest surge in violence began after Syrian and Russian warplanes resumed their air strikes in Idlib where rebel fighters and jihadist groups have been trying to regain control of several towns and villages recently recaptured by Syrian government forces and their allies.
“Russia, Syria and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent civilians in Idlib Province…,” tweeted US President Donald Trump recently, rather too casually for my liking. Without the urgent intervention of some major power, there will be a massacre and no one seems to be bothered about it, because life has become so cheap.
Ironically, the same intoxication with power which afflicts Middle East rulers is also evident on the ground in Idlib, where so-called Emir Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, sits as the commander-in-chief of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). His leadership has been dismal and, true to form in terms of Arab leaders, he has thrown his daring critics into prison. In other words, even if, by some miracle, the rebels were able to revive the revolution, the goal of the leadership would most likely be the same: to replace one despot with another.
One of the most over-used clichés attributed to the genius Albert Einstein was his definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And yet the only hope left to those Syrians who don’t want to be ruled by Assad is another man with a similar mindset. Julani has made it clear that he will not step down, with the result that many of those rebel leaders who agreed to fight under the HTS umbrella in 2015 have left.
If HTS was a corporate entity the shareholders would have rebelled and voted to sack the Chief Executive by now. The warning signs were already clear back in 2017 when Sheikh Abdullah Mohaysini and Sheikh Abdur Razaq Mahdi bailed out after little or no progress was made on the rebel side.
Countries like the US, Canada, Britain, France and Germany could play a pivotal role in all of this, but as long as the West has no real investment in finding a solution neither does anyone else, illustrating yet again why the UN is no longer fit for purpose. Until a mechanism is put in place where peaceful leadership change can be brought about in Syria, innocents will continue to die. The same could also be said of Yemen and other countries mired in the blood of their people.
All over the world, violence and injustice persist, with around 70 million people fleeing from war zones, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Extreme violations of human rights such as genocide or ethnic cleansing are often seen in places of economic, social or political instability.
Unless we stop treating the symptoms and start looking at the causes, these grim statistics will come to define the 21st century. The never-ending cycle of death in the Arab world is down to the craving for power by those in charge. Is there not one among them interested in a lasting legacy, someone who could show humanity and compassion towards the people of the Middle East? Or will we simply tramp the dirt down and walk away as these old rulers are put into the ground only to be replaced by versions II, III, IV or more?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.