Where Next for Syria?

A man reacts amid debris after what activists said were explosive barrels thrown by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo April 27, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3MTUG

By James Denselow

The conflict in Syria has been going on for almost six years and despite events in Aleppo would appear to have the potential to go on for even longer. This piece examines the state of play in the country and examines the current trends arguing that the Syria of the past is unlikely to return and a far weaker, fragmented entity is likely to emerge in future.


On the 15th of March 2017, Syrians will mark the sixth anniversary of the crisis that engulfed their country. Many Syrians will mark the date far away from their former homes and the country of their birth. Some have successfully crossed into Europe and are building new lives, others have died trying, yet the vast majority of the nearly five million Syrian refugees remain in the region. Often, these families will be a matter of hours travel from where their lives were once based, but they know the Syria they once knew is gone.

Towards the end of 2016 and the Russian-backed and often Lebanese-Hezbollah led offensive on opposition-held east Aleppo led many to speculate that Assad could be on the verge of “winning” the war, but what “winning” in Syria looks like is important to qualify.

Syria has suffered the most dramatic collapse in terms of state and society of the twenty-first century. The numbers are staggering and create an enormity that is sometimes difficult to process. In addition to the nearly 5 million refugees are the over 6.5 million internally displaced, meaning that roughly half the country has been forced from their homes due to the crisis. Estimates of the dead vary from 200,000 to nearly half a million. The forensic evidence based art of counting casualties has become almost impossible in the black hole that the conflict has created and academics admit they simply don’t know accurately how many have lost their lives.

Whilst the number of dead people may be obscured, the wounded are better understood. The UN assessment published towards the end of 2016 estimated that roughly 30,000 Syrian people were wounded by violence each month and some 9,000 suffered from a permanent disability. The country’s economy has been halved and the World Bank’s conservative estimate is that reconstruction costs alone would add up to some $180bn.

The latest UN and Arab League envoy, Staffan de Mistura, the man with arguably the hardest job on the planet, counted twelve countries and 89 armed groups involved in the fighting on the ground.

So any “victory” has to be put in the context of the cost to date and what sort of country the nominal victor would inherit. Meanwhile Syria still remains a playground for regional and international interests. The latest UN and Arab League envoy, Staffan de Mistura, the man with arguably the hardest job on the planet, counted twelve countries and 89 armed groups involved in the fighting on the ground.

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About the Author

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a Director of the New Diplomacy Platform (NDP). He has worked extensively in the Middle East, including research for foreign policy think tank Chatham House, writing and reporting for several media publications and for communications and advocacy work with international NGOs. He is a contributing author to An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? and America and Iraq: Policy-making, Intervention and Regional Politics Since 1958 and has advised the British Government on its policy towards the Arab Spring. He is a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS).


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.