In March 2011 when Syria mired into civil war, Joe Biden, the then Vice President of the United States declared that "when a state engages into atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty" and pledged unconditional support to the people targeted by Syrian autocrat Basher al- Assad. The people who had come out in the streets demanding basic human rights in Syria were unaware that their ruler was unfamiliar with the term human rights and to him any demand by the people in open forum amounted to rebellion and should be nipped in the bud. As instructed by the ruler, the police unleashed ruthless brutality on the unarmed protesters in the streets of Damascus. Many were killed and many more suffered injuries. As the protests took place in other cities and police did the same. There were strong condemnations from Europe and North America against excessive use of force on unarmed civilians. Not surprisingly, the denouncements in the region were mild and the leaders in the region expressed hopes that a solution of the crisis would be found through dialogue. Their hopes became wishful thinking. The regional bodies like Organisation of Islamic Countries and the Arab League utterly failed to fathom the depth of anger, frustrations and aspirations of the people and could not commiserate these to the regional leaders. As a consequence, the entire region went through an upheaval. In some countries, people succeeded in getting rid of the long serving autocrats for a short period, in other countries the rulers were overthrown but the countries fell into civil wars. The OIC and the Arab League helplessly witnessed the transition without being able to play a meaningful role.
There was no dearth of freedom loving people in Syria. The youth, intelligentsia, professionals comprised a significant section of the population who genuinely aspired for a democratic society based on rule of law and social justice. They believed a democratic egalitarian society would guarantee the wellbeing of the future generations of the country. But they underestimated the brutality of the autocrat or overestimated their strength to secure victory or might have done both. They were on the presumption that the members of the law enforcing agencies comprising their own people would think twice before plunging into action to subdue them. But they were mistaken. When the autocrat decreed that the rebellion posed a challenge to its existence and must be crushed, the police and the army treated the demonstrators as "enemy number one" and showered no mercy. Hundreds were killed, hospitals were bombed, and schools were destroyed. Men, women and children were killed. In their enduring befuddlement, the people saw in their own eyes that their own government had deployed their own police and army to murder the population. They found that its government had killed more Syrians than they died in the wars against Israel. What an irony!
As the conflict turned into a full blown civil war, the neighbouring countries and their allies began to chose proxies and provided them arms and ammunitions. Syrian army backed by Iran targeted the rebel forces and the Islamic State militia (IS). The rebels supported by the Arabs and the Gulf States with the military support from the United States began to hit the Syrian army positions. The Iraqi army with the support of Iran and US air coverage was engaged in trying to regain the lost territory from IS. Russian troops upgraded its naval base in Tartus in Syria and in September 2015 got directly involved in assisting the Syrian army. During the recent years Russia had provided military assistance to Syria worth $2.5 billion which was acutely needed to enhance the striking capability of Syrian army.
The Obama-Biden administration's decision to aid and arm Syrian Democratic Force, a heterogeneous striking force comprising Arab and Kurdish militia was not borne out of a comprehensive policy. The NATO was not involved, and Turkey had conspicuously adopted a strategy different from the United States. Obama threatened to take military action should Assad regime resort to applying deadly gas against the rebel forces. But when the regime did use chemical weapon against the population the Obama-Biden administration faltered. This emboldened the Assad regime to make reckless use of the weapons to eliminate the rebel groups.
President Trump followed a disengagement policy and decided to withdraw American troops from the conflict zones. He ordered to keep no more than 1,000 troops along the Syrian border. The de-induction of American troops from Syria and retaining only a small contingent were well received by Russia. It virtually diminished the US army to launch a military strike along or inside Syrian territory. Russia emerged as the only country with massive military presence in Syria followed by Iranian contingents.
Now more than two-thirds of Syrian territory is under the control of Syrian government. The rebel groups are fragmented, poorly armed and lost the steam to pose a challenge to the government. Basher al-Assad has survived the greatest challenge against his rule and allowed his army to root out the remnants of rebel forces. He has bestowed loyalty to Moscow and President Putin feels proud that his government holds the key to political resolution of Syrian conflict. The United States is no longer a stake holder in the conflict.
In 2017, President Putin met the leaders of Syria, Iran and Turkey as part of his strategy to initiate a political process ending the war and power sharing arrangement. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov clarified that "Russia and Iran, unlike the United States, are in Syria at the invitation of its government and they would stay as long as necessary." President Rouhani and President Erdogan claimed following their meetings with Putin in Sochi that a ground work for political settlement in Syria had been laid. Washington did not seem to have a role in the post conflict peace negotiations.
Joe Biden is now back in Washington - this time as the President of the United States. He has seen the futility of Obama's policy on Syria. Syria is now utterly devastated, 6 million people are internally displaced, 3 million civilians are living in the hard-to-reach areas and another 5.6 million people are living as refugees in neighbouring countries. About 500,000 have been killed. Assad is still the president of the country and his army has his imprimatur to detain, harass and punish the people they suspect as hostile to the regime. People cannot dare to return to the places of origin in their homeland -- Syria.
Biden or his Secretary of State has not spoken about the crisis in Syria. Though Assad has secured his throne, the situation is far from tranquil. The United States have been sidelined owing to its futile policy. That doesn't mean US cannot still play a role in the region. It can build a coalition of countries from Europe and Middle East and launch a diplomatic move to negotiate a power sharing agreement. Russia will have a decisive role in it but it will not be averse to a long term political settlement that would not diminish its pivotal role. Washington can also mobilise the office of the United Nations Secretary General, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and the World Food Programme to launch massive relief and recovery operation for the millions of displaced populations, refugees and the people living in the hinterlands. They have endured hunger, poverty, diseases for years and are now desperate to return the country they belong. The US, EU countries and Russia can work together, prevail upon Assad not to witch-hunt and give a chance to the people suffered for no fault of their own.
The United States cannot lead from behind. President Biden must make a firm decision to put Syria high on agenda. Many countries will come forward and embrace the leadership of the United States in restoring peace and stability in Syria.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.