Daraa 'de-escalation' masks Assad's ethnic cleansing in Syria

Daraa 'de-escalation' masks Assad's ethnic cleansing in Syria
Comment: Daraa, like Aleppo before it, could fall without the world batting an eyelid. The remaining population would be cleansed, and Assad's exterminators would move in, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
30 Jun, 2017
Residents of Daraa visit their relatives' tombs after Eid prayers in Daraa, Syria [Anadolu]

More than 600 barrel bombs have been dropped by the Assad regime on Daraa city over the past month or so, while missiles and napalm have rained down upon the mostly civilian neighbourhoods of the liberated areas of the city. 

It might even take the undesirable title of the most bombed place on earth. 

And this is all happening in what is supposed to be a "de-escalation" zone, under plans authored by Russia at the Astana conference. The scale of the destruction in Daraa is almost unprecedented, after more than 2,000 air raids. At least 88 civilians have been killed in recent weeks, including 18 children. 

Occasionally, there is a lull in the carnage, which the Assad regime and its allies call "ceasefires", but which seem to be merely chances for his troops to regroup and taste the air - making sure that the international community hasn't suddenly started caring about the genocidal destruction of an entire country. 

After 48 hours or so, the brutality begins again. The US remains committed to its tacit support for Assad, Iran and Russia's genocide by conventional means, only threatening to step in when chemical weapons are mentioned. Under Barack Obama, Washington first posed as a "Friend of Syria", only to rescind any friendship to any part of the rebellion that was fighting Assad. 

Daraa might even take the undesirable title of the most bombed place on earth

With Trump, things are characteristically less predictable - the US continues to withhold the hand of friendship from the rebellion, but remains volatile towards Assad over the use of chemical weapons and any of the few conflagrations Assad forces have with their intermittent allies in the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighting the Islamic State group. 

Combined with this is tougher talk from Washington when it comes to Iranian expansionism, but nothing even approaching meaningful action when it comes to the true dynamics of what this means in Syria or anywhere else. 

For when one talks of "regime forces" in Syria, they aren't talking about locals from Daraa or even Latakia, but rather mostly Iran's very own Revolutionary Guards, as well as its army of Shia jihadists - most famously Hizballah - that Tehran has mobilised to help/hegemonise Assad's Syria. 

But US concern for Syria is conditioned only by its support for the YPG and its wider fight with IS. To put it in the words of US Central Command, speaking on behalf of its anti-IS coalition, which issued a bland but almost apologetic statement after it shot down an Assad regime bomber that had uncharacteristically targeted Washington's YPG allies, "The coalition does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them." 

On a not-unrelated side note to the dimensions of the global and collective tragedy that is Syria, if the US had shot down a Syrian bomber that was bombing Syrian rebels or Syrian civilians in rebel-held Syria, you could expect the "anti-war" activists ("anti-war", unless the war is being waged by Assad against Syrian Sunni Arabs) of the West to mobilise against "World War III" and for "Hands off Syria". 

US concern for Syria is conditioned only by its support for the YPG and its wider fight with IS

This is precisely what they did when the US struck Assad's Shayrat airbase from which the attack which gassed Khan Sheikhoun was launched. 

If these forces continue to murder the kind of Syrians that it is internationally acceptable for them to murder, namely Syrian Sunni Arabs fighting for their lives against Assad, Iran and Russia, using "conventional methods" as opposed to poison gas, the US has no complaints. Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May agree. 

Without indulging too much hyperbole, it conjures someone opposing the Holocaust only when the Nazis began using poison gas to murder Jews on an industrial scale - the Einsatzgruppen death squads, after all, used "conventional weapons" to shoot dead at least two million Jews before Zyklon B gas became a more convenient method of genocide.

And though Trump seems more concerned with his pathetic squabbles with the US media over alleged "fake news" concerning his alleged links with Russia, the US has indicated that Assad might be on the verge of using chemical weapons again and that there will be repercussions should this occur. 

The fact the US cares enough to mention this is a good thing - though it might concern Assad's mouthpieces in the West - even if the US threatening Assad deters him from using sarin, it can only be considered a positive outcome. 

Syrian government forces attack a rebel-held area in the southern
city of Daraa, on June 11, 2017 [click to enlarge - AFP]

But will it deter him? After all, the US only half-destroyed Shayrat in response to the Khan Sheikhoun massacre, in what seemed to be more of a warning than a retaliation.

Even so, with the world's most powerful country breathing down your neck, why risk it?

While Assad's supporters seek to deny or obfuscate every single instance of his criminality, particularly when it comes to his use of chemical weapons against civilians, the logic behind the use of them is not just cruelty, but terror. And what's the logic of terror? Well, let's look at the carnage in Daraa. 

One doesn't drop thousands of bombs, missiles and napalm munitions on a city because one's enemies are easily vanquished - or because one simply wants to achieve mere "victory" (as in a rebel surrender). Victory, for Assad and his allies, has never been a mere military matter, but rather a demographic one. 

The Syrian revolution was so huge in its scale that for Assad, backed by Iran, to hang on to power and to maintain and expand a rump state, it would require vast demographic changes. You might be able to terrorise revolution out of some people, but in Syria, by the point the regime began to murder people, Assad's legitimacy was lost forever among huge swathes of the population. 

Read more: Syrian regime drop napalm-filled barrel bomb on residential areas of Daraa

It's for this reason that we've seen such a huge external and internal refugee crisis, the largest since the Second World War - with almost 14 million people displaced, with almost half of those fleeing the country, perhaps never to return. 

The purpose is to exterminate - to depopulate or degrade and then reassert regime control. Using this strategy, we've seen Assad's senior partners in the Iranian regime attempt sectarian projects, such as its plans of pushing out Sunni populations of Syrians to rebel-held areas and moving in Shia settlers, not just from other parts of Syria, but, in true colonial style, from Iraq and Lebanon. 

We saw this active ethnic cleansing after the regime forces occupied Free Aleppo, as well as many other parts of the country taken by Assad's forces.   

This fits perfectly with the Russian idea of "de-escalation" zones. While they're advertised as "de-escalating" violence, all we've seen so far in these proposed zones is the will to "de-escalate" the conflict by annihilating not just the rebels, but the neighbourhoods of those who support the rebels, the civil infrastructure and the merest modicum of free organisation. 

Look at Daraa, or what's left of it, and you'll see precisely what Russia and Assad mean by "de-escalation". 

Victory for Assad and his allies, has never been a mere military matter, but rather a demographic one

The "Kneel or Die" slogan that encapsulated the tactics of Assad, Iran and Russia isn't particularly palatable to an international audience, so what better way to rebrand brutal conquest as "de-escalation"? 

The current fighting in Daraa, which had previously been relatively quiet due to the resident rebel force, the Southern Front, being under the thumb of Jordan, the US and Riyadh - who are all now more concerned with fighting IS than Assad - occurred because the Assad regime took advantage of this international distraction to seize the city and control the border with Jordan. 

Parts of the Southern Front, as well as Islamist allies such as Ahrar al-Sham were compelled to act. It's a miracle that they've lasted this long. 

You'd think, if you were to believe the hype, that the US and Saudi Arabia would not welcome the presence of Iranian-led forces right on the border of Jordan, but despite some rumours that the Southern Front were ordered to fight against Assad for this very reason, there has been no evidence of any kind of meaningful external support for the rebels there. 

Indeed, Jordan continues to keep its border closed, stopping injured Syrians, including civilians, from seeking medical aid and refuge. 

It seems that Daraa, like Aleppo before it, could fall without the world batting an eyelid. The remaining population would be cleansed, Iranian-led forces and Assad's organs of extermination would move in - this seems to be the true meaning of "de-escalation". And perhaps then Free Idlib will be next on Russia and Assad's "de-escalation" list. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.