Applying the Lessons of Sri Lanka to Syria
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently issued a major address, his first such speech in months, proclaiming his intention to retake “every inch” of Syria from his opponents. His declaration, combined with Russian intervention on his behalf and the breakdown of peace talks in Geneva last April, have led many to reexamine their theories that Syria as a state is non-repairable, and that al-Assad will never be able to achieve victory. It seems more probabable now than in prior years that al-Assad may be able to regain control of all or most of Syria. But the question remains, what would a post-war Syria look like?
I was among the first American students to visit the war-torn north of Sri Lanka in the fall of 2013. The Sri Lankan Civil War was launched in 1983, after the minority Hindu Tamils—under the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—revolted against the government run by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. Prior to the launch of the war, the government had installed a regimen of ethnic hegemony, marginalizing the Tamil minority and particularly native Tamil speakers. The war was finally brought to an end in 2009, but not before numerous well-documented war crimes were committed by government forces, and suicide bombings and other terrorist tactics were used by the LTTE.
Four years later, in 2013, Sri Lanka was nowhere near recovered. While the streets of the Sinhalese capital of Colombo were clean and bustling, the streets of the former LTTE capital of Jaffna were deserted and under curfew. Kilinochchi, one of the last LTTE strongholds to fall, was in ruins and still under martial law. The non-governmental organization that invited us to the country was promoting reconciliation, particularly between the Sinhalese and Tamil youth. But however well intentioned their words were, they were still laced with condescension. They saw themselves as victors, and merciful ones at that, and the Tamils as misguided and brainwashed victims of the LTTE. One of our guides, the son of Jaffna’s former prison warden, was even more critical in his assessment. He viewed the Tamils as something of a mix of animals and rebellious children. They didn’t operate under the normal rules of civilized behavior and occupied land that in his view rightfully belonged to the Sinhalese.
While Syria and Sri Lanka are drastically different in many regards—language, religion, and culture to name a few—they also share many similarities. The Sri Lankan Civil War began because of the dictatorship by the majority Sinhalese over the minority Tamil. The Syrian Civil War, in large part, began due to the dictatorship of the Alawite minority over the Sunni majority. Both the Syrian and Sri Lankan regimes committed horrific war crimes in their respective wars. The LTTE invented the suicide vest and members of the Syrian opposition regularly engage in suicide bombing. Terrorism trickled out from Sri Lanka and led to the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi while Syria has become a safe-haven for ISIS and al-Qaeda. India intervened in the Sri Lankan Civil War while Turkey, Russia, and the West have intervened in Syria.
So what can we theorize will happen in a post-war Syria with al-Assad remaining in power with reflection on the Sri Lankan Civil War? For starters, those 4.6 million refugees that have been making headlines for flooding into Europe and neighboring countries won’t be returning anytime soon. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, 130,000 Tamil refugees fled to India and nearly half a million fled to Europe and North America. The owner of my residency in Jaffna was one such refugee who returned after the war but, according to him, he was one of the few who did so. Most refugees, having spent years adjusting to life in developed nations were unwilling to return to their former homes, now war-torn and destitute. By the time Syria begins economic recovery, many of the refugees who fled will have adjusted to a more prosperous life in the West than they would ever have back home. It is particularly hard for some Europeans to digest but these refugees will forever be part of the fabric of nations they now inhabit, and lawmakers need to start seeing them that way, rather than a temporary problem to be solved.
Four years after the war ended, northern Sri Lanka was still under military rule, with civil liberties severely restricted. The LTTE had been defeated because after 26 years of fighting they no longer had the will or the resources to continue. But that does not mean the Tamils were suddenly accepting of their status as second-class citizens. The government, insecure in its victory, and seeing the need to retain power, clamped down on dissent harshly and treated all Tamils as virtual prisoners of war. In Syria, where the ruling class is a minority, that insecurity will likely be heightened. The iron fist that ruled Syria before the war will only tighten at its conclusion.
Finally, arguably the most stunning aspect of my visit to Sri Lanka was the amount of devastation that still existed. The highways I rode along were teeming with minesweepers, the buildings that stood were pocked with bullet holes, and electricity water routes laid in disrepair. The rumble-filled skyline of Aleppo will not be rebuilt soon after the end of the war. The amount of pure destruction that has occurred in Syria will require years to rebuild, as well as resources and good-will towards the population of these cities, both of which an al-Assad government currently lacks.
Sri Lanka is something of a microcosm of Syria. Everything that occurred in Sri Lanka, the destruction, war crimes, and displacement of populations, is occurring in Syria on a grander scale. If Syria follows Sri Lanka’s path, the devastation will not end with the war. By studying the results in Sri Lanka, policymakers can learn from the country’s failings and apply these lessons to Syria.