March 15, 2013
The Syrian conflict began as an attack on schoolchildren in Daraa, but it has transformed into a war guided by a particular logic of destruction. Two years of fighting have resulted in an estimated 70,000 dead, 1 million refugees, an educational system reeling, and cities in shambles. Some commentators are quick to call the current situation a "civil war" that is becoming a deadly stalemate. Before giving up on Syria, it is worth asking what has changed in two years?
When the schoolchildren in Daraa wrote graffiti on the walls calling for the end of the regime, the Arab Spring was a point of inspiration. Yet the Assad regime's arrests of the schoolchildren and their subsequent attacks on protesters signal that the regime operates by a set of rules informed by its own logic.
A report by the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) Commission on Syrian Refugees details life in Syria and the conditions of refugee camps in Syria. Aside from the seven recommendations to stem the humanitarian catastrophe, the report narrates the stories of Syrians who have endured, escaped, or fallen prey to the forces of war.
Make a list of the targets, and you will see the guiding logic behind the regime's approach: Children, women, doctors, engineers, schools, health care facilities, sanitation services, and neighborhoods are not spared. In the IRC report, we learn of a one-year-old with a stab wound in the neck, of women who surrender to "the reality of rape," of doctors who are targeted because they have medicine for the sick and wounded, of engineers who try to keep water supply running in Aleppo even after several have been shot and killed.
What started as a brutal response to protests has transformed into a systematic effort to rip apart the social fabric and infrastructure of a nation. Once the Assad regime lost control of Syria, their strategy has been to rip the social fabric of Syria into shreds. The wanton destruction of the nation is not pathological. It is strategic. The only way for the regime to carve out and safeguard a state for itself, perhaps based in Homs, is to turn the surrounding areas into a wasteland.
What has changed, then, is the regime's objective and strategies. Two years ago, it was trying to hold on to power. Now, the regime is trying to eliminate the very possibility of a Syrian nation. What kind of war is this? It is not a "civil war" between two sides fighting for different visions of the nation. It is a war waged by a losing regime that will destroy the nation in order to maintain any possible power.
What are the results of this war against the people, cities, infrastructure, educational system, and health care of Syria? Syria is becoming a political vacuum of informal rebel forces and formal foreign militant groups and influences. Syria is the new playground for ideological recruitment and proxy wars. This lack of order resembles a failed state. But Syria has not failed as yet, despite the efforts of the regime. We see courage in the physicians who set up clinics in homes and shops. We see resilience in the engineers who uses their own tools and spare parts. And we see resourcefulness in residents who make their own homemade oil refinery, as covered by our SAS reporter in Idlib province.
Two years later, protests have devolved into a war between a regime determined to destroy a nation and an opposition, made up of reformers, civilians and armed groups, who want to rebuild and, ultimately, gain control of a nation. Syrians on both sides perceive this existential war as a zero-sum game. The humanitarian consequences will be long-lasting, but the Syrian nation, as Syrians envision it, is not over as yet.