Pictures From Syria: A Bloody Deadlock and a Shattered Future

Sunday 24 July 2022

Pictures coming from Syria in July illustrate that, despite the relative peace and the fragile ceasefire, the situation is opaque and can inflame frontlines anytime.

By Ola Rifai

On July 8, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited the northern city of Aleppo for the first time since the war broke out 11 years ago. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and economic hub, was a strong foothold for rebels from 2012 to 2016 when the Russian military intervention helped Assad to take back the city.  To celebrate the sixth anniversary of recapturing Aleppo, Assad inaugurated part of a thermal power plant that was damaged during the fighting and has been rehabilitated by the Iranians (it is now ready to produce 200-megawatt electricity). Later in that day, Assad toured the city with his wife, two sons and one daughter. Syrian National News Agency SANA showed pictures of the Assad family walking through the ruins of Aleppo old city- UNESCO world heritage- while chit-chatting with shop owners, taking selfies with fans, and casually dining in a middle-class restaurant near Aleppo historical citadel.

On the second day of his visit, Assad performed Eid al Adha prayer at Abdallah bin Abbas Mosque alongside some officials from the government and notables from Aleppo. Surrounded by pious prayers, Assad expressed his “love” and “adoration” for Aleppo. He praised the patriotism of Aleppians in facing “terrorists […] who damaged mosques and churches to stir up tribal animosity”.

Indeed, Assad’s visit aims to emphasise the need to secure sectors like water and electricity, and to focus on the process of reconstruction. As well as practicing soft power that is part of Assad’s propaganda machine. Certainly, authoritarian regimes employ soft power as a vital tool to polish their picture. However, there are shortcomings for Assad soft power since the intensity of violence by the regime (e.g., ranging from the usage of barrel bombs, chemical weapons, the destruction of cities and displacement of half of the Syrian population) is widespread.

While speaking to pious prayers Assad stresses that “[terrorists] has destroyed stones in the historical city of Aleppo, [yet] we shall bring back stones to their places […] and bring back life to normal”.

Well, this does not seem very convincing as some 70 KM southwest Aleppo, Abu Mohammad Al Golani (leader of Hayat Tahrir al Sham HTS) was receiving notables in Idlib to celebrate Eid al Adha. In a Video recording published by Amjad Media Foundation (HTS) Al Golani appeared wearing a casual green shirt and trousers while shaking hands with dozens of civil men in what looked to be a living room of an apartment. Remarkably, Al Golani is not only shifting his radical jihadi fashion-style (usually covered from head to toe in Black) and the Jihadi flag, but he is also attempting to swing his group toward a more pragmatic approach. And he has been doing this repeatedly in the past. The man altered agendas, alliances, and group names since his first appearance in 2013 as the Nusra Front (Al Qaeda affiliated group) Emir in Syria. Yet in July 2016 Al Golani declared cutting ties with Al Qadea and established Fatah al Sham group. However, less than a year later, in January 2017 Golani renamed the group to Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and after a bloody intra- struggle for power, he made a large-scale merger with other rebel groups. Today, Al Golani is referred to as Al Sheikh al Qa’ed , Sheikh and leader rather than the Emir. Black Jihadi flags are changing to the white with HTS logo in the center.

Earlier in 2022, Al Golani was filmed in public areas in Idlib speaking to civilians and taking selfies after he inaugurated the Aleppo -Bab al Hawa Commercial Road. Wearing a baby- blue dress shirt and dark trousers, Al Golani insisted that this Road is considered as one of the “revolution accomplishments” and stressed the significant role of the economy in ‘liberated areas’. Furthermore, another video showed Al Golani while visiting Druze notables in Jabal al Summaq to inaugurate a water project that was set to serve the area. Similar video shows Al- Golani visiting a Christian village while highlighting the ‘brotherly’ relations between the various communities. In his ex-Jihadi discourse, al- Golani would consider non-Muslims Kuffar infidels and would rarely use the terms that he is reiterating now such like ‘revolution’, ‘state building’ ‘, ‘economic prosperity’ , ‘cultural identity’ and ‘institutions’ .

In this light, HTS pursues for legitimacy and recognition, and seems to be embarking on a process of transition. Distancing itself from hardliners and leaning toward pragmatism. After ousting rival Salafi Jihadist groups, Al Golani is de facto ruler of Idlib. And he is utilizing the civilian technocratic administration (Syrian Salvation Government SSG) to moderate his picture and legitimize his power.

Well, history of the region indicates many examples of the transformation of radical jihadist groups into political parties. However, history also reveals the fatal consequences this had on the Middle East and beyond.

In his Eid speech, Al Golani assured that despite of the economic hardship and the siege imposed on Idlib “[ the city] demonstrates a successful case of good governance […] at all sectors; health, education, transportation, media, infrastructure, justice […] and yet this is only a beginning to what will take place in [Syria] in the future”.

Indeed, one could not predict what the future is hiding for Syria, However, there might be a hint coming from the Iranian capital city which hosted a trilateral meeting of the three key players in Syria and who are responsible for the above-mentioned picture in Aleppo, and the one coming from Idlib.

On July 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi held their meeting, which was under the umbrella of Astana Peace Process, in Tehran. The meeting has a symbolic meaning and aims to highlight the continued international influence of these players, and to counter the U.S president Joe Biden’s meeting with Arab leaders in Jeddah (on July 15).

Although Putin, Erdogan and Raisi were holding hands and smiling to cameras, they have competing interests in the region and in Syria. In this light, the core of Iranian- Russian- Turkish alliance lies on short-term interests rather than a productive partnership to ensure political stability. There is a distrust and conflicting agendas among the three actors.

As political scientists argue alliances are ephemeral than durable and aim to balance threat in an anarchical system (Walt 1987). Nevertheless, the inflammatory approach that each of these actors conducts in Syria is increasing the threat instead of containing it. The geographic and demographic engineering in Northern Syria and the establishment of control zones in which they empower a particular player against the other, will prolong conflict and destablise the region.

Lastly, three more pictures came from Syria on July 22, seem to draw the bottom line. The first one is for an Israeli fighter jet attack on the suburbs of Damascus that killed three soldiers and injured seven.

The second is for a Turkish drone attack in the countryside of Qamishli that killed one person and wounded three others.

And the third is for a mother weeping over the bodies of her four kids who were killed by a Russian double-tap strike Ikhlas, 8-year-old. Yusra,6-year-old. Jana, 4-year-old, and Mohammed, 1 year-old.

Only Syrians are paying the heaviest price every day and are bearing the brunt of the failed policies by the International Community toward their ongoing tragedy.