Cradle of Civilization
Syria is one of the oldest cradles of human civilization, home to a large number of ethnicities and religious groups. Its cities, the ones remaining, are some of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It has seen countless number of different peoples and different rulers throughout the age – right from the ancient kingdoms like Ebla, Yamhad in the eras of 3500-1000 BC, to the first regarded empire in human history – Sargon of Akkad. Consequently, it was a part of many empires – the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great, the Romans, to the Muslim empire under the Caliphate and the Ottoman Turks.
Once a country where ancient Mesopotamian temples stood beside Umayyad era mosques and Orthodox Syrian Christian Churches, Syria has much more in common with India than most Indians realize. Which is why the current siege of its largest city, Aleppo, should matter to India.
There is a lot that experts have written on the turmoil that is raging through Syria and Iraq, producing the most complicated geo-political mess one has ever seen. Government forces fighting terror groups fighting rebel groups fighting militias.
Even the Wiki page of the current Syrian civil war fails to simplify matters. Here’s a look at who’s fighting whom. Keep in mind that all groups in the same column are not necessarily allied with each other.
Ultimately, we are witnessing wars of politics, oil and ideology not only cause intense suffering among the Syrians but also a great loss of cultural heritage that stood for many centuries, if not millennia.
As we speak, the siege of Aleppo intensifies. Russia and Syria war bombed two more hospitals out of service. An ancient city is breaking down and slowly giving its way to ruins and rubble.
Intensifying Battle of Aleppo
Started since 2012, the Battle of Aleppo intensifies daily due to the strategic and symbolic importance of the city, which is enough for The Telegraph to call Aleppo “Syria’s Stalingrad”. It is highly likely that whichever side emerges victorious from Aleppo gets the advantage in the civil war itself. Which brings us back to the crisis that is looming.
Disappearing vital supplies like food, medicine, electricity, coupled with shelling and bombing has turned the city into what the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien calls “the apex of horror”. UN special envoy for Syria estimated 400,000 approximate deaths by April 2016. Cursory Google searches into statistics and images of deaths, casualties, executions from authentic sources are horrifying enough. Some, like the photo of Omran Daqneesh that went viral, captured the imagination of many a netizen, showing the raw brutality of the war at Aleppo.
Bigger Role Possible for India
While it can be argued that India has nothing to gain in militarily involving itself in the civil war, but by actively engaging on the humanitarian front, especially in aid and reconstruction, India has more to gain than just the goodwill of Syrians.
ISIS thrives not just because of their strongholds in Syria and Iraq because of foreign arms, volunteers, funds and oil black market, but also because of the online propaganda and exploitation of the poor, the vulnerable and the alienated. Providing a healing touch to Syrians can significantly reduce number of survivors and locals who fall prey to ISIS propaganda or have to cooperate with them out of sheer necessity of survival. Since ISIS has territorial bases in Syria, foreign fighters will need local support to familiarize themselves and consolidate their holdings. The sooner ISIS can be deprived of local support, the better.
Moreover, a proactive engagement has the potential of lifting India’s diplomatic stature. In a time when Pakistan is on a diplomatic over-drive to reduce the Kashmir issue into extremely simplistic one that paints India as the sole villain, Syria has extended support to India.
A strong democratic Syria would be the ideal forward-looking secular ally among the Arab states that India could easily rely on. If India’s engagement with Syria on a constructive basis is done with a long-term future in mind, there could be bonus dividends. It is possible to have improved access to Syrian oil, improved economic ties and the potential bonus of future potential tourists and students.
Our current engagement with Syria has been about striking balances – there have been stream of bilateral visits and medical aid during the visit of the foreign minister Walid al Muallem earlier in 2016. But as the war in Aleppo intensifies, India has the potential to becoming a major positive player in a war that has been made more difficult due to hidden agendas of every major power involved.
Bottom line, it is up to India to approach the crisis from not just a humanitarian but a civilizational perspective. If borders are drawn culturally, the Levantines – Syrians and Iraqis, would be our oldest neighbours, taking into account the era when three great cultures thrived on the banks of Indus, the Euphrates and the Nile. It is high time that Syria enters India’s public discourse more thoroughly, not just among the lynchpins that work in New Delhi’s corridors of power.
Title image: Theintercept