Road to Damascus needs an Arab plan and purpose
The UAE is best placed to provide the assistance and expertise Syria needs to rebuild on a war footing.
Syria happened in a flash. What seemed like a distant, brutal war will soon be a sad, fading memory. But it happened even as Baghouz, the last city in the grip of terror, is now being liberated by American, Kurdish and Syrian forces.
The Road to Damascus, once so appealing and transformative, is being revived by the UAE's imaginative thinking now that the war is coming to its gory end.
I like to think that we have moved on and are closer to finding closure, perhaps erasing it from our collective memory. But can we until we have put the country back on its feet after our failure to prevent it from crumbling to sectarianism after peaceful protests were hijacked by terror groups led by Daesh?
Back in 2011 when the protests started, spread and soon showed its entrails in terrorism, we in the region didn't know what to expect. But it hit us with so heavy a force (and price) that it changed the contours of the Middle East and the way we perceive friend from foe, protesters from pestilences like Daesh, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra (believed to be associated with Al Qaeda) and other violent groups that unleashed a reign of blood.
Before we knew it, those on the outside - the non-Arab countries - directed the course of events by coming to the rescue of Bashar Al Assad, President of Syria, against these groups. There was Iran, which was already entrenched on the ground; Russia provided air support and Tehran's proxy Hezbollah did the rest of the dirty work by keeping Assad in power. Iran and Hezbollah had no business being there on the ground in the first place, but they were busy perpetuating their policy of encirclement of Arab countries, the Gulf Arab region in particular.
Sadly, the West lacked perspicacity, and the US was clueless on how to choke the course of events that brought this cruelty upon an ancient civilisation and its people. I wonder if anyone remembers former US president Barack Obama's 'red line' on chemical weapons that the rebels, terrorists or regime gleefully crossed with no fear of retribution.
Events happened so quickly that the tragedy may have sapped the humanity in us. Humanitarian fatigue is what some experts call it. When hostilities were at their peak, 5.6 million Syrians fled to Europe and other parts of the Middle East. The UN says 13.6 million people are 'in need' in Syria, 6.6 million are internally displaced while 2.98 million are in far-flung, shattered places with no hope of aid reaching them.
The violence and the bloodshed, the gassing of innocents, the ripping of hearts by the combatants. If you are thinking I made this up, I did not. Go back to the events of 2013 when a Syrian rebel commander, Abu Sakkar, displayed the heart of a Syria soldier in the heat of battle, his rage and raw hatred unbound and for display on social media. Suffice to say our conscience was cannibalised following the West's dereliction of duty to protect ordinary Syrians.
It shred our shared psyche but we remained outwardly calm and carried on, our shared conscience tarnished, our mock protestations sounding vain. And, when it ended, there it was - Syria desolate, devastated and destroyed beyond modern recognition. Its rich history and culture ravaged by bloodthirsty groups like Daesh who seemed to have emerged out of thin air.
So, who do we blame for this country's loss, or shall I call it a civilisational loss? A dictator who cobbled up an evil alliance, or the devil in the guise of Daesh? Both, an understatement of sorts.
According to estimates, more than 500,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Families are now returning to the country through the Jordanian border which is a good sign. At least the migration crisis can be reversed to some extent in a place that once looked like home.
Infrastructure losses are manifold, and it is estimated that it would take six years to just clear the debris in bombed out East Aleppo, once a rebel (not terrorist) stronghold that was opposed to Assad.
The price tag for Syria's redevelopment? A whopping $250 billion, according to conservative estimates by the World Bank. The UN, however puts the figure at close to $400 billion. Who will pay for it? Certainly not Assad, Russia, Iran or Hezbollah. The last two have been hit by sanctions - the terror group is now begging for alms.
The regime has shown more inclination in protecting its interests in Damascus now that the bombing run has ended and the terrorists and other groups have been evicted from their strongholds. Moscow has never shown scarce interest to becoming a long-term player in Syria but with its brute air supremacy it has emerged as the major military power.
Salvaging Syria will take an Arab vision and action and the UAE is stepping in where others fear to tread. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan echoed Arab angst about the state of affairs when he said Syria must recover its place in the regional schemes of things.
"The re-opening of the UAE embassy (in Damasus) is just the start of this journey," the minister said. The UAE believes that "it is vital to analyse the situation in Syria, how the situation developed and the decisions taken that impacted the crisis," said Sheikh Abdullah. Any solution should starts with introspection and the UAE has signalled its intention to get the process moving.
Rehabilitating people will be a challenge for many years, but reconciliation will be the harder part, and Assad and his regime will have to prove that they are serious about lasting peace through a political process.
How the various factions, groups, sects and military powers reconcile their differences after eight years could test spirits and patience. Syria's return to the Arab League is possible but only if Assad proves his 'Arab' credentials by stripping Iran of any legitimacy in his country's affairs. The regime in Tehran is a spent force after being squeezed by US sanctions, so why stick with a loser?
Reconstruction can then begin, and the UAE is best placed to provide the assistance and expertise Syria needs to rebuild on a war footing. Taking the modern (and moderate) Road to Damascus will be long and arduous, but the "journey has begun" from the UAE. It will reform and transform Syria and will be worth it.