The Damascus Stairs of Hope

Wednesday 24 January 2018
Ola Rifai


Just before the end of 2017, dozens of energised Syrian youth working with the Shams Association (a civil movement operating in Damascus) applied colors and graffiti to a famous flight of stairs in al-Muhajirin neighborhood in Damascus calling it daraj al-amal “the stairs of hope”. Alas, videos streaming from Eastern al-Ghuta a few kilometers away from al-Muhajirin, abolish any hope of a peaceful 2018. Civilians there were dying from chlorine gas dropped from the sky by regime jets. And those who survived the attack are facing death either by barrel bombs or hunger.

Indeed, 2018 started with a radical military shift; thanks to Putin, the regime regained power over 60% of Syrian territories. Whereby politically speaking, negotiations in Geneva are reaching a deadlock. Accordingly, the regime now is more stubborn and arrogant than ever and not ready for any compromises. Or in other words, no sticks are there to force the latter for concessions.

Therefore, it is the time to change the balance and to create new rules of the game. Although, the solution to the crisis should absolutely be political, however, military gains would direct all actors towards the negotiation table. Time now seems to be running out as battles in the North are accelerating; where on the one hand, regime troops are fighting rebels over Abu al-Duhur airbase in Idlib ; the last strong foothold for the rebels. And on the other hand, Kurdish forces that include militias from the Free Syrian Army are fighting the Turkish troops that were sent by Mr. Erdogan to control Afrin. While the U.S is building a 30.000-strong border security force (BSF) led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that are controlled by Kurdish fighters. Well, the truth of the matter is that American support to the Kurds (who unlike their fellow Syrian Arabs, proved to be capable of fighting and governing) is not new. The U.S has funded and armed the Kurds since the early stages of the conflict. Nevertheless, establishing such an army would certainly be insufficient to swing the balance and further, would stir more enmity between Arabs and Kurds, and radicalise Sunni rebels.

Indeed, if Western politicians have a quick glance at the map of northern Syria today, they would observe two options; either to support rebels in Idlib (those who were transferred from Homs, suburbs of Damascus and al-Zabadani as part of evacuation deals between the government and the opposition throughout the past three years), and who now are fighting against the regime under different militias. By backing them and uniting them in one group, the West would embark on a process of deradicalisation of Sunni rebels. Also, this would rebuild the trust with the Sunni fighters who feel abandoned by the West. The second option is to only support the Kurds to safeguard borders with Iraq and prevent more jihadist from pouring in. Eventually, this would provoke Sunni rebels to fight with Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) and lose any leverage over Sunni militias inside Syria.

In the same vein, Syrian Arab rebels would be facing two choices, either to fight with Tharir al-Sham, and henceforth condemn themselves as they would surely be targeted by the regime, Russians and also the Coalition while losing any international support. Or, to establish a strategic alliance with the only influential group opposing the regime on the ground; the Kurds. In essence, the Syrian crisis has proven how alliances can alter rapidly and radically in a Machiavellian style; the Russia and Turkey alliance is a very good example. Hence, there is a historical opportunity now to bridge gaps with the Kurds. For many decades, the Syrian authority and also the Syrian Arab community were responsible for the political, social and cultural exclusion of the Kurds that has resulted in identity clashes. Now it is the time to acknowledge Kurdish rights and to address the Kurdish question fairly.

Last week, the prominent Asharq al-Awsat newspaper published a document comprised of eleven articles signed by Syrian notables of Sunni, Alawite, Druze and Kurdish identity groups in Berlin, Germany. The document emphasises the unity of Syrian territories and of Syrian people regardless of their religion and ethnicity. Certainly, these notables cannot mend fences among the different groups through academic lectures neither through commentaries on social media. There must be military action on the ground that aims to empower their roles.

It is needless to say, that today Syria is a battle ground for many foreign actors who instrumentalise Syrians to serve their own realpolitik ends. Yet, it would never be too late for the Syrian people to recognise that it is only them who are capable of drawing the closing chapter of this war.

One enthusiastic girl who volunteered with the Shams Association to color the stairs in al-Muhajireen passionately told the reporter there “ how lovely it is to see different colors on these stairs, different colors made these stairs”. We can only hope, that in 2018 Syrians will come to see the different colors that make the great Syrian nation.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.


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