Syria conflict a footnote at UN meeting

Most of Syria has returned to government control after eight years of war.
Wednesday 25/09/2019
This June 16, 2019, file photo, shows a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal. (AP)
This June 16, 2019, file photo, shows a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal. (AP)

BEIRUT - As dozens of heads of state convened for the annual UN General Assembly in New York, the lingering conflict in Syria was taking a back seat while tensions in the Arabian Gulf and global trade wars took centre stage.

With the unresolved war now in its ninth year, many Syrians fear it has become a footnote in a long list of world crises, with weary leaders resigned to live with Syrian President Bashar Assad ruling over a wrecked and divided country for the foreseeable future.

On the eve of the global gathering in New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that a long-awaited committee that would draft a new Syrian constitution had been finalised -- a step the United Nations hopes will put the war-ravaged country on track for a political solution.

However, few see any real chance that the committee can make significant progress towards that end.

"The world has forgotten about us -- not that anyone cared about Syria to begin with," said Hussein Ali, a 35-year-old internally displaced father of two. He lives with his family in one rented room in the opposition-controlled northern town of Azaz, near the Turkish border. "The rise of Daesh made the West care momentarily, but not anymore," he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

Most of Syria has returned to government control after eight years of war. The exceptions are the opposition-held bastion of Idlib in the north-west, where rebels, Islamic militants and their families from all over the country have been cornered, and the oil-rich north-east, held by US-backed Kurdish groups.

The violence has largely tapered off in most of the country but few among the nearly 6 million refugees scattered across the globe have returned. Many fear detention if they come home -- or they simply have no homes to return to.

Entire towns are in ruins. The West will not contribute to reconstruction plans as long as Assad is in power and other countries are unwilling to invest without a political settlement in place.

In Idlib, a Russia-backed government offensive to recapture the province continues to claim lives. Hundreds have been killed and more than 400,000 displaced in the past four months under Syrian and Russian air strikes, but the bloodshed hardly makes a dent in global news.

"The world apparently has long since tired of the war and resigned itself to frozen conflict, with a nationwide cease-fire as the best possible scenario," said Heiko Wimmen, project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at International Crisis Group.

Syria's conflict was a domino effect of the “Arab spring” uprisings that began in late 2010, toppling dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. What started in March 2011 as largely peaceful demonstrations against the Assad family rule turned into an armed insurgency following a brutal government crackdown.

The conflict became a proxy war pitting the United States, Turkey and Gulf countries that supported the rebels, against Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, which fought alongside the government. In the chaos, extremists such as ISIS, seized one-third of Syria and Iraq.

Nearly 500,000 people have been killed and half of Syria's pre-war population displaced. The opposition has been crushed for the most part and Assad is widely considered to have prevailed militarily. ISIS militants who dominated the news for years have been defeated, although the group continues to stage sporadic insurgent attacks.

A tentative ceasefire has been in place in Idlib since the end of August, but there is no suggestion it will be anything other than a pause before government troops and their allies regroup and relaunch their campaign.

"The Syrian regime appears determined to clench back every last bit of territory, without the tiniest bit of compromise," Wimmen said. "As long as Damascus persists in its attitude and is enabled by its foreign backers, the war will continue."

While the world remains deadlocked over Syria, there is no initiative on the horizon to help resolve it. UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen is the fourth to have the post. The previous three resigned following years of mediating peace talks that led nowhere.

The constitutional committee announced on September 23 includes 150 members divided equally among government, opposition and civil society members. It is tasked with drafting a new Syrian constitution in talks facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva. Desperate for a breakthrough, Guterres touted it as "the beginning of the political path out of the tragedy towards a solution."

Syria is to have presidential elections in 2021 and the United Nations hopes the talks can help create a climate and mechanism for holding a neutral and fair vote. However, with a clear military upper hand, Assad's government is unlikely to offer any concessions and Syrian officials have suggested he will stand for election again.

A Western diplomat called it an "important step" in the sense that talks overseen by the United Nations would provide some form of international scrutiny over the balloting.

"It will not be a solution for the war but rather a method to get a Syria platform going and try to be more inclusive than the two-side indirect talks," the diplomat said, referring to several rounds of talks between the government and the opposition in Geneva overseen by the UN envoy. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

Underlining the distrust, Syrian lawmaker Safwan Qurabi said the committee is "sensitive and is also dangerous."

"What is planned through this committee is to steal Syria's political decision, which they couldn't do through destructive military action," Qurabi said, referring to the opposition and their foreign supporters.

While the violence may have diminished, analysts said the war is likely to continue for a long time.

At its height, the conflict unleashed a global migrant crisis that continues to reshape Europe and neighbouring countries that once opened their borders to millions fleeing war. That reception has chilled over the past year. Suffering an economic downturn and rising unemployment, the mood in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan has soured and calls for the refugees to return home are growing.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country can no longer shoulder the burden of 3.6 million refugees it hosts and has threatened to "open the gates" and allow a flood of Syrian refugees to leave Turkey for Western countries unless a so-called "safe zone" is established in Syria soon in negotiations with the United States.

The rising resentment against Syrians seems to be behind a new wave of migrants sailing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos every day.

Erdogan used his speech at the United Nations to highlight the humanitarian cost of the war by holding up a photo of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old boy whose lifeless body was found on a Turkish beach in 2015 and drew the world's attention to the plight of refugees.

Erdogan said the world must "never forget" the world's "baby Aylans".

An all-out Syrian government offensive to recapture Idlib, which seems inevitable, will likely have disastrous consequences, pushing hundreds of thousands of people towards the Turkish border.

"Assad won't go away, since pushing him out is no longer an option, but neither is rehabilitating him, or rebuilding the country in his presence," Wimmen said. "The status quo of misery will likely persist."

(Associated Press)