10 Years On, a Solution to the Syrian Crisis Remains Elusive | Opinion

Just over 10 years ago, I was sitting in the home of a family in Damascus watching Al Jazeera as protesters in Egypt and Tunisia demanded the downfall of their countries' regimes.

Our Arabic instructor at the University of Damascus assured us that no such thing would happen in Syria because there was social cohesion and that—unlike that of Egypt or Tunisia—the government reflected the will of the people.

The comments echoed what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told The Wall Street Journal in a January 2011 interview: "We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."

Despite these reassurances, an uncle in the family I was with—a retired military officer visiting from a nearby village—said that similar unrest would come to Syria. Syria is always last, he said, but these things always come here in the end. Barely a month after my departure, the uprising began: first as peaceful protests, then gradually as sectarian civil war.

The sectarian turn of the conflict was a shock and disappointment to many, including to Syrians, but it shouldn't have been a surprise. The experience in neighboring Iraq was an omen, but analysis of the Iraq War was so focused on the many mistakes of the Bush administration that it failed to properly understand just why the country had fallen apart so dramatically. It was not a surprise to all, however, and many Syrian intellectuals feared exactly what came to pass: Chaos would lead to civil war.

Syrian critic Georges Tarabichi wrote in 2006 that democracy was "transformed, in the Arab imagination, to a magic password: Open Sesame! After the failure of nationalist, leftist and revolutionary ideologies, democracy would open the locked cave of modernity and achieve a miraculous transition, without effort, cost, or time, from a state of regression to a state of progress."

If planted in the wrong soil, democracy would become a poisonous plant, Tarabichi said. He believed his country's problems were much deeper seeded than merely bad governance. Another Syrian writer, Turki Ali al-Rabi'u, wrote in 2000 that the seeds of civil war were planted in dangerous rhetoric by both authoritarian regimes and Islamist movements.

When protests against the Syrian government broke out in March 2011, the naysayers were dismissed. This was the Middle East's moment to enter the modern era, it seemed. But 10 years later, it is quite the opposite. There now exists a great nostalgia for the Syria before 2011, not shared by all of course. For many, the death and destruction of the last decade were not worth any political gain that might come of the revolution.

After 10 years of war, a new enemy has emerged in Syria: widespread hunger and poverty.

The Syrian pound dramatically collapsed over the last year, eating up the purchasing power of even the well-to-do. The reasons are many: corruption, the collapse of the Lebanese banking system which provided dollars to the Syrian economy and—most importantly—sanctions by the U.S. and E.U. that prevent investment in the country.

While humanitarian work is meant to be exempt, banks are hesitant to help even charities move money into the country. In government-held areas, the value of salaries dropped below $20 per month, making even basic survival impossible. This drives corruption, as people will do what it takes to feed their children.

The situation in Syria's northeast is marginally better, but the currency collapse threatens lives and livelihoods there as well. As a Syrian friend there tells me constantly, "Mr. Dollar has destroyed us."

In light of all this, the coronavirus seems like a minor issue. Few noticeable measures are taken to combat the virus' spread. People simply have more pressing issues to worry about.

As the country's economic situation spirals out of control, a new U.S. administration means an opportunity to reconsider America's role in the Syrian conflict. Politically, the U.S. continues to call for the removal of Assad, but in practice our policymakers seem content to leave him in power. Syria's opposition proved incapable of uniting and is unlikely to provide a better alternative for the country.

A member of the Khabour Guards Assyrian Syrian militia, affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), walks in the ruins of the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, which was previously destroyed by Islamic State group fighters, in the village of Tal Nasri on November 15, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Sanctions are furthering a cruel contradiction: starving a regime that is unlikely to be driven from power. The U.S. tried the same against Iraq in the 1990s, but it took an invasion of the country to remove Saddam Hussein; sanctions alone weren't enough and only served the purpose of starving those furthest from power and least able to get a piece of the ever-shrinking pie.

Civilians have become pawns in Syria's great chess game: Assad brutally targeted those who opposed him through torture and barrel bombs; Turkey ethnically-cleansed Kurds and religious minorities from its border to clear out PKK-affiliated elements; and ISIS sought to eliminate anyone who did not agree exactly with their radical interpretation of the Koran.

By seeking to cripple the Syrian state without providing a realistic alternative, the U.S. approach as it stands today is equally inhumane. Removing sanctions won't fix Syria's economy overnight, but it will help relieve some of the burden on those currently suffering from economic collapse.

In late February, I walked into a Syriac Orthodox church in the city of Al-Hasakah in Syria's northeast, during prayers for the Fast of Nineveh, a tradition unique to the Syriac-speaking churches of the Middle East. After the service, the crowd surrounded me to ask where I was from, what brought me to Syria, etc. They asked me how I thought President Joe Biden would handle Syria. Not knowing where opinions might fall, I tried to be as diplomatic as possible, saying I thought the U.S. would show more commitment to the country.

A man piped up and said he was from Ras al-Ayn, taken over by Turkish-backed jihadists after former President Donald Trump gave Turkey a green light to invade in 2019. He was glad to hear that Biden might not abandon the area haphazardly.

As I excused myself from the gathering, one last person shouted: "Pass our greetings to Mr. Biden (sallim 'ala al-sayyid Biden)."

The remaining presence of ISIS in Syria necessitates a continued U.S. engagement there, but it is not America's job to stay in the country indefinitely if there is no national interest. The U.S. repeatedly proved incompetent at playing politics in the Middle East and will not be able to address the deeper causes of the Syrian conflict.

For now, U.S. presence is holding together the northeastern part of the country. Should we decide to leave, we owe it to our partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to arrange a reasonable transition. This Kurdish-led force includes fighters from the Arab, Syriac/Assyrian and other communities in the area, and was our main partner on the ground in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Our military continues to conduct operations against ISIS with the SDF.

Most likely this would entail a deal with the government in Damascus, which has thus far proven elusive. It cannot look like our last attempted withdrawal, in which Trump announced a unilateral, immediate withdrawal. It prompted a humanitarian disaster and destroyed years of trust built with the SDF. It is only due to lack of alternatives that allowed us to regain some trust with the SDF and stay, after the decision was reversed. The U.S. presence won't resolve the situation, but an abrupt departure would undoubtedly make things worse.

One can only hope that the stalemate as it stands will finally convince all sides that continuing the conflict is pointless, and that the time will come to give in on entrenched demands. It may seem unlikely now, but the Lebanese civil war came to a similar end in 1990 after 15 long years. All sides realized they had nothing to gain in the war and finally conceded on things that had been non-negotiable before. Syria's conflict is not yet to 15 years, but the end may be in sight.

Speaking in the largely Christian town of Qaraqosh, Iraq, on March 7, Pope Francis urged those present to forgive the ISIS militants who destroyed the town and the church he was speaking in.

"What is needed is the ability to forgive, but also the courage not to give up," the pontiff told the crowd.

In neighboring Syria, forgiveness may seem like a tall order. It seems naïve, but for the country to move past the conflict there is likely no other choice.

Sam Sweeney is a writer based in the Middle East. He is also the president of the Mesopotamia Relief Foundation, which works in northeast Syria.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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