While the Syrian crisis may appear quite remote from Africa, the reverberations of instability in that country would be felt in many African countries.
It is estimated by the United Nations that more than 250,000 people have lost their lives within the four-and-a-half years of armed conflict in Syria, which began with anti-government protests before escalating into full scale war, when outside interests, for different reasons, decided to back rebels with weapons, training and logistics, in other to cripple the incumbent regime led by Bashir-al-Assad.
The situation became complicated with Jihadist militants from the Islamic State-ISIS joining the fray. ISIS later linked up with anti Assad rebel elements in some areas. As far as ISIS militants were concerned, the civil war in Syria created an ungoverned space and the possibility of extension of their Islamic Caliphate from Iraq into Syria.
At the core of the conflict which gradually unfolded, are sectarian undertones. The Syrian Sunni majority was pitted against Assad’s Alawite sect, this is however separate from the Kurdish aspiration of a separate state comprising Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
A United Nations Commission of enquiry indicated it has evidence that all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes including murders, rape and enforced disappearances. It was also reported that hundreds of people were killed in August 2013 when rockets laden with the nerve gas agent, sarin, were used at a suburb of Damascus.
While the Syrian government has the support of Hezbollah (Lebanon) Iran and Russia, the Sunni dominated opposition has received support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, as well as, the United States, United Kingdom and France.
The latest crisis started on April 4, 2017, when a chemical attack allegedly from Assad forces was launched against the town of Khan Sheikdom in Idlib, a province in northern Syria, controlled by an alliance of rebel groups. The Syrian and Russian governments have both denied the accusation and called for an independent inquiry.
President Donald Trump who had previously indicated, during the presidential campaigns, that he would rather concentrate on domestic issues and leave other countries to sort out their problems, all of a sudden, changed his mind and authorized fifty-nine Tomahawk missile strikes against the Syrian air force base from which the chemical weapons were launched.
United States Interest
The United States has four clearly defined interests in Syria. The first is to defeat ISIS; the second is to ensure that Syria does not have the capability to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, which could be used against other friendly countries in the region. Third, is to support Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime and the fourth, though unstated, but well known, is to achieve regime change.
But what would appear not to have been clearly thought out are the consequences of a regime change in Syria under today’s circumstances. Most analysts are of the view that,
A regime change without first defeating ISIS and without a negotiated settlement between the Syrian regime and the rebels would create exactly the same situation in which the United States and her allies left Iraq and Libya after taking out Saddam Hussein and Muhammar Ghadaffi.
Many view the April 4 Tomahawk missile attack in Syria as a signal and the first step of the regime change agenda.
For several decades, starting from the early 60s the former Soviet Union had supported some countries in the Middle East, initially mainly for ideological reasons. Such countries include Syria, Iran, Egypt and Iraq. Both Egypt and Iraq have since shifted towards the west.
Russia and to some extent China both believe that, countries, especially those in the third world, should be allowed to resolve their domestic problems without external interference. Both countries are also strongly against regime change in third world countries.
This is the main reason for the veto of many UN Security Council resolutions proposing imposition of sanctions against third world countries by both Russia and china.
Concerning the current Syrian crisis, the Russian government at the United Nations opposed sanctions against Syria, as well as, resolutions for the use of force citing cases of where such resolutions had been taken advantage of, by the western alliance, to go over and above what was intended in the resolution.
Specifically, Libya and Iraq, where regime change were effected to the severe detriment and total collapse of these two countries, a situation which prepared the fertile ground for ISIS to grow and spread. If there is any reason for a regime change, it should have the support of the United Nations and should be carried out in such a way that would not lead to the disintegration of the country.
Lessons for Africa
The African union (AU) by tradition does not make statements or express opinions concerning unfolding international events outside Africa, in particular, those relating to the volatile Middle East, especially when the super powers are involved. This is understandable given the weak military, economic and socio-political structure of many African countries, as well as, the OAU/AU policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.
The other reason is the non-representation of African countries on the 5 member United Nations Permanent Security council, outside of the two year non-permanent rotational seats.
The weak economic position of African countries and aid dependency on western nations and China all combine to prevent Africa from expressing strong opinions on issues outside the African continent, such as the Syrian crisis.
However, at the United Nations General Assembly and other fora, African countries need to continue to press the case for the principle on non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, through the auspices of the Non-Aligned and G77 group of countries.
It is equally important to remind the rest of the world, especially the super powers that have global interests, that where ever regime change is instigated from outside, without a well-structured socio-political arrangement in place to take over from the ousted regime, what is left behind is chaos and civil war.
This is not to support regime change in any way, but the reality is that Africa is not in any position to stop the process, but is however able to insist on a due process and an arrangement that would not make a bad case become worse. The Libyan adventure is still very fresh in our collective memory.
Muammar Ghadaffi’s fall and subsequent civil war in Libya opened the opportunity for Al Qaeda and ISIS to secure a foothold in Libya and a few other countries in Africa. It also introduced the large-scale movement of small arms and light weapons, and a considerable amount of middle range weapons which found their way into many West African countries.
While the Syrian crisis may appear quite remote from Africa, the reverberations of instability in that country would be felt in many African countries, especially those in North Africa.
The Way Forward
Although no useful recommendation can be proposed on many intractable Middle East events, it is important for the world to be a safer place and to prevent Syria from joining other failed states, such as Iraq and Libya. As such, the African Perspective on the way forward on the Syrian crisis includes:
- The need for the western alliance led by the United States to coordinate their activities with Russia on the Syrian crisis, to avoid actions capable of worsening the current situation.
- The most immediate issue in Syria to which a solution must be found is the defeat of ISIS
- The contemplated regime change, however attractive it might look, has the potential of destroying the country.
- Steps should be put in motion for the withdrawal of foreign powers from the domestic crisis in Syria.
- It is better to use the auspices of the United Nations to bring together the Assad regime and the rebels towards finding a solution to the civil war.
- Regime change should be the prerogative of the people of Syria and preferably should be through a peaceful free and fair election. This may sound naïve but is not impossible if all sides are genuinely interested in a peaceful solution.
The world is becoming more and more intertwined where events in any part are capable of affecting activities in other parts, however remote or far away. This is the lesson for Africa, which must do its utmost best to ensure a peaceful, fair and safer world.
Amb. Layiwola Laseinde